When Dino Djalal, the Ambassador from Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, wanted to give a gift to Washington, D.C., he chose a statue of a Hindu goddess. A 10-foot high statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of Education, now stands on Massachusetts Avenue in front of the Indonesian Embassy, just down the street from the Islamic Center, which was a gift from the Ambassador of Egypt a half a century earlier. The purpose of the Islamic Center is to promote "a better of understanding of Islam in the US." The purpose of the statue of Saraswati is to say that in a country of 247 million, where Muslims represent 88 percent of the population, the 3 percent who are Hindu also matter.
For Ambassador Dino Djalal, Christians and Jews matter too. Last year, he and Rabbi Sid Schwarz led a group of 24 Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from the U.S. and Indonesia on a peace mission to meet with leaders in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The trip was significant in its own right for so many leaders of different faiths to travel together. It was even more notable as Indonesia does not have diplomatic ties with Israel or recognize Judaism as one of six religions.
The year before, Ambassador Djalal organized a panel with one of the leading Muslim clerics from Indonesia, Dr. Din Syamsuddin, Rev. Mischal Livingston, a Presbyterian minister and former president of the National Council of Churches, and Rabbi Schwartz. The discussion was shown on Indonesian television. Viewers thought it monumental to have leaders of different faiths, including Judaism, discussing how people of faith could be strong in their own faiths yet tolerant of others. The panel captured the Ambassador's "solidarity in diversity" theme that he has been trying to promote along with traditional ambassadorial goals of increased economic cooperation and improved national ties.
In that same year, the Ambassador challenged Washington, D.C. to amass the largest number of people playing angklung, an Indonesian bamboo instrument, all together. The instrument is simple enough to play -- just shake and you get a note. The core message was also clear: Many angklung played together make a melody, many people of different faiths and backgrounds playing together, in this case 5,182 of them playing "We Are the World," sends a statement of multiculturalism and religious diversity.
The ephemeral angklung event served a similar purpose to the concrete statue of Saraswati: to encourage people to take religious tolerance more seriously. I spoke with I Nyoman Sudarwa, who was flown in from Bali along with of six of his stone masons to carve the Embassy's statue. Mr. Nyoman is well known in Bali for carving statues, but this was the first time he has ever been outside of Indonesia. In three weeks, he and his team sourced the materials and created the statue of Saraswati as well as three children (one African American, one Caucasian, one East Asian) that stand at her feet, without knowing a word of English and worrying about snow that they had never seen. I asked him what it meant for him to carve a statue of a Balinese goddess in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
"It's normal" he replied. "You always put Saraswati in front of universities and government buildings."
Normal in Bali but still striking in Washington, D.C. that the Ambassador would choose to erect a Hindu statue in front of the Embassy of Indonesia, home to 280 million Muslims, to make a statement about the need for religious tolerance.