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Angilee Shah

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What Obama Missed in Indonesia

Posted: 11/19/10 03:09 PM ET

President Barack Obama's visit to Indonesia was cut short because of volcanic ash, but what he missed was an annual tradition that says a lot about a country relatively unfamiliar to most Americans. Indonesia marks Heroes' Day every Nov. 10 to commemorate extraordinary service to the nation.

Among those considered this year for addition to a list of national heroes was the late Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately known by Indonesians as Gus Dur. If Obama's trip to Indonesia was an opportunity to introduce Indonesia to Americans, getting to know Wahid would have been a good place to start.

Wahid was elected president in 1999, the year after "New Order" President Suharto was ousted. Suharto was known for bringing stability and economic growth as well as heavy-handed military control to Indonesia. Obama's family moved to Indonesia in 1967 when his step-father was recalled from his studies in Hawaii by this regime. Wahid was the next elected president, the charismatic and well-loved leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), arguably the largest Muslim organization in the world.

While Suharto repressed many types of expression, including political dissent, news coverage of his regime and advocacy for an Islamic state, Wahid fostered dialogue. An Islamic scholar trained in Cairo and Iraq, he had a rare ability to cross religious boundaries and convince hardliners of the value of pluralism. He could enter churches -- some 9 percent of Indonesians are Christian or Catholic -- and still be welcomed by Islamic conservatives. By most accounts, he navigated the staggering religious and cultural diversity across Indonesia's thousands of islands with a mixture of humanity and humor. Abdurrahman Wahid's second daughter, Yenny Wahid, a political activist and director of the Wahid Institute, recalls traveling with her father as a child. Villagers, she says, would wait up to greet him, even if he arrived at 2 a.m.

"40 years of his life, he spent on the road, on the ground," she remembers. "He could sleep anywhere."

The basic statistics about the country he traversed are still surprising to many Americans: Indonesia is the fourth most populous country, the third largest democracy, and home to the largest Muslim population in the world. In a post-Suharto era, Islamist parties have contested freely in three national elections raising questions, sometimes anxieties, about how this majority-Muslim country will position Islam in its politics.

The three dominant political parties in Indonesia today are rooted in Pancasila, the preamble to Indonesia's constitution which expresses a commitment to pluralism and democracy. The fourth largest party is the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which was formed in 1998 and openly supported Shariah. After a poor showing in the 1999 legislative elections, PKS moderated their positions and made some gains in 2004. Now, the party says that they are guided by Muslim principles but no longer intent on Islamic law. Last year, the party was situating itself to leap frog into mainstream politics but actually lost ground in the popular vote.

A study by Thomas Pepinsky at Cornell University offers some surprising insights into PKS' successes and failures. A survey, which randomly sampled voters across Indonesia's well-defined neighborhood units in 2008, found that it is only in the absence of clarity, without information about parties' economic platforms, that Islamists gain an advantage. If voters have information, Islamist parties have no advantage over non-Islamist parties.

"Indonesian voters are pious but not Islamists," Pepinsky says."Nobody thinks anymore that elections are going to be run on morality."

The results of Pepinsky's survey might bring some relief to those who believe in Wahid's vision for the country, though Wahid was not ultimately named a national hero this year. Indonesia is in a good position to have real discourse about what they want in their leaders. This is not to say, however, that Islamists have no influence. PKS holds 10 percent of legislative seats and is part of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's coalition government. Former party chairman Tifatul Sembiring is the Communication and Information Minister, one of four PKS cabinet appointees. The party has had some success influencing legislation, such as the 2008 anti-pornography law, and Pancasila parties feel the pressure to appease conservative voters. On a local level, when it comes time to protect the constitutional rights of embattled churches or minority Islamic sects, for example, Islamist groups often exert influence over bureaucrats and police.

Case in point, in 2007 a Christian congregation in Bekasi, a dirt-road town on the outskirts of Jakarta, applied for permits to build a church. Stonewalled by local authorities for years, the group eventually began construction without formal approval. When they used the unfinished structure to hold services at the end of 2009, however, a crowd blocked the road and demonstrated against the church, yelling "Allahu Akbar!" Local authorities responded by sealing the construction site and a lengthy legal battle ensued.

This story might sound all too familiar to Obama and the American media that followed him to Indonesia. Legally, people of all faiths have the right to worship, but in practice, they struggle with their feelings about minority religions and might even protest the existence of a house of worship.

Rev. Palti Panjaitan, who leads the Bekasi congregation, is a hardened man, determined to fight for what he believes are his basic rights. He reminds himself that the demonstrations were the acts of individuals, not a representation of Islam as a religion. And he maintains that Indonesia needs to do better in making sure laws are enforced at all levels.

If asked, however, he says that he would sign a petition to build a new mosque 100 times. He pauses for a minute and adds, "I go with Gus Dur."