She fascinated me. She pulled me closer irresistibly no matter how much I tried to pull away. She stimulated my senses, and even more provocatively, challenged my intellect to understand her more, even as she kept revealing facets of her personality, little by little.
She was tantalizingly different to any I had ever encountered before. Before you get carried away and start imagining a gorgeous Sundanese woman that I fell for, stop here! This is not your typical love story, and she is not the woman of my (and your) dreams. She was, is, the country; Indonesia.
I first came to Indonesia in 2007. I was a jaded traveler by then, having explored about half the world, having lived in London and Eastern Europe and Asia trudged over literally every tourist (and off the track) frequented city that the continents had to offer. I had come for just a day, transiting through Jakarta really, as part of a government delegation which typically just breeze through a city without absorbing any of it. However, busy in these inevitably interminable meetings, I could still sense that there was something different about Indonesia.
I held onto this for a few years, when I came back as a tourist with a mind to explore, and explore I did, from Sumatra to Papua. I was dazzled. Where else can you see worship in literally dozens of spiritual ways, trundle over volcanic ash in Bromo, go placid on Toba, smell a sulfurous volcano in Bandung and Nasi Goring Gila in Jl. Salang, revel in Jakarta, grab a Bali-Hai in Bali, get overawed by coral triangle diving in Raja Ampat, see the Komodo in Komodo and the mole mola in Nusa Penida, wonder at Bunaken, go breathless seeing Borobudur, go tribal with the Dani tribe, dance with the Dayaks and in swanky Dragonfly, witness death become life with the Torajan in Sulawesi, or live-aboard a crowded boat which seems to be surrounded by the most gorgeous oceans you have ever seen. I could go on and one, but I won’t, because for me this was only the first tantalizing look at her, and maybe still not enough to fall in love. I told you this was not your typical love story, and I am not your typical expat making a living in Jakarta and hanging around Kuningan.
I got fascinated by the people of Indonesia because for me they presented a unique question mark. I study people and societies for a living, in a manner of speaking. I am counter-terrorism and counter-extremism practitioner and academic. For years, I served in counter-terrorism police formations and later gravitated to being an academic after getting my Doctorate in Terrorism studies. I have been studying how societies and people get radicalized for over a decade now and have a modest reputation within academia.
Having observed first-hand many societies, I expected Indonesia to be just a typical Muslim majority country, which for me symbolized a Muslim majority population dominating the entire socio-cultural ethos of the country. I have seen this happen in almost all the Muslim majority states, and am almost convinced of the notion that a majority will find ways (many times devious) to manipulate minorities to their will. But oh boy, was I surprised by Indonesia!
So, to people sceptical of the notion of Unity in diversity, I will begin by listing their concerns first. This is so that I don’t seem to ramble like an ignorant foreigner who gets dazzled at a very superficial level, having spent a couple of days clubbing and going to shopping malls in Jakarta, after a few days spent in Bali. I have been in Indonesia many times, and have lived and studied the society here. I know there are challenges. Religious extremism is viewed to be rising, there have been terrorist attacks in Surabaya, Indonesian returning foreign fighters from Syria fighting for IS have been causing troubles, there are apprehensions of the minorities etc. I know all this. But I submit to you, if all this were not happening, Indonesia would be too good to be true!
See, for the fourth largest country by population, with the most number of Muslims in the world, there had to be some issues! Countries far smaller and far less diverse have had more! Indonesia is crazily diverse; multiethnic, multi-faith, multi-locality are terms that have encompassed the life of Indonesians, far longer than their national identity of Pancasila. When you google, besides the internet describing Indonesia as a vast archipelagic nation, you will find that there is a huge number of ethnic groups, numbered at around 656 by some accounts( accounts vary), while the Indonesian Ministry of Education has recorded around 500 living languages( again it varies).
Indonesia simply has so much access from the world and from its regions at large that it is impossible for Indonesians to live away from outside engagement, and the society has thus become multi-cultural and tolerant at its core. I submit to you that in order to be multi-cultural, you have to necessarily be very tolerant, or you will not be able to resist the temptation of absorbing or changing other cultures through a dominant cultural narrative.
Many countries are ‘cultural melting pots,’ a prominent example being the United States. Historically, what has happened there is that some dominant cultural nuances have been superimposed on immigrant cultures, creating an ‘American ‘culture, which partially or largely erases the original identity of the immigrant or original resident. If you examine American subcultures which one could call as being distinct from the American culture, like the Native American or black American or Hispanic subcultures, they have retained their own identities only because they have kept somewhat aloof from the main culture, or have been marginalized or ghettoized for long durations. A dominant culture prevails in the name of the country being multi-cultural.
Couldn’t we say the same about Indonesia, that Indonesians are all Indonesians same as all Americans are Americans? No! Indonesians remain Indonesian, but they also remain Javanese, Bataks, Sundanese, Balinese, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist or whatever they are. They retain a very strong cultural identity which is distinct from the national identity, but at the same time is the same as the Indonesian identity. You just need to spend a few days observing culture at a deeper level in Bali or Medan or Manado or wherever, where you see whole swathes of people practicing their own cultural or religious identity without even thinking about it being swamped by an Indonesian identity, which they adore by the way!
Now, this was finally enough to make me fall in love with the utopian state of my dreams, Indonesia. Sure she has problems, but if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be real! She has experienced terrorism and extremism and might continue to do so, but so what? If she hadn’t, I would be worried that something far worse was about to happen! Come on, how could you imagine that a peaceful country with the largest Muslim population in the world would not be a prime target for the terrorists and extremists? Of course, she would!
But get your figures right too, because they are telling. Indonesia has suffered comparably infinitesimally less Islamist terrorism than Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan while having comparably far larger Muslim populations. What does that tell you? If you were thinking rationally, a lot! It means that there is some structural resilience in the country that makes it robust against this phenomenon.
Indonesians are the sweetest people, and unless some radical change affects their temperament at the core at large, Indonesia will continue to retain that resilience against extremism. Extremism thrives on marginalized people and vitriolic majorities hell-bent on curbing the lives of others. That is not going to happen in Indonesia. The government will not allow it, the people will not allow it, and most importantly, the Indonesian culture will not allow it.
Of course, globalization is a challenge to moderation, but conversely, culture is a challenge to extremism and radicalization. Alarm bells ringing in time is actually good, so that course corrections can take place when there is still time. Oh, there will be some turbulence, but the core Indonesian goodness of nature will eventually triumph over any extreme right or left-wing tendencies. I told you, mine was not an ordinary love affair with this country.
And as I told you, my own engagement with Indonesia is not typical either. Unlike most expats who come here to find a living in Indonesia, finding a job in some mineral or mining or hospitality or some other industry, I am opening my own institute on the robustness of Indonesian culture in Jakarta, by the name of Amity Indonesia. Fun fact: I am funded by nobody else but myself! And I am spending my own money to disseminate the model of Indonesian tolerance to the world!
Another fun fact- I don’t plan to look for any funding either, which is typical of NGOs. I am going to do everything my way, in a non-partisan manner, without direction from anyone (I am already turning out dozens of videos on the topic on YouTube).
By the way, I will talk only about Unity in Diversity, which might be a cliché even for some younger Indonesians who don’t really understand the value of this model, but for me, it’s a lifesaver for any country!
In the end, you probably have recognized what sort of a love story this is. It’s the sort which drives a man crazy, gives him higher purpose, intrigues him about his beloved, and probably changes his worldview about everything. I apologize if you were just waiting for my romantic tale with a beautiful girl from Bandung.