Indonesia is increasingly identified as an upcoming global powerhouse ready to join the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but too little importance is attached to the fact that it is also the most populous Muslim nation-state in the world—one in every five Muslims lives in maritime Southeast Asia. Generally international attention only focuses on the country’s economic potential in terms of natural and human resources, and this tropical island world between India and China is only seldom associated with Islam. However, in the wake of the seismic changes affecting the Middle East since the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, a latent awareness is beginning to develop that the country’s political experiences of the last fifteen years could offer an alternative between a hard secular state and an uncompromising Islamist polity. This means that if Indonesia’s achievements in accommodating religion in the public sphere and nourishing Islamic intellectual contributions were to receive the recognition they deserve, the potential impact on the rest of the Muslim world could be very substantial. Indonesia’s own growing assertiveness on the global stage is reflected in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ambition to position the country as a ‘bridge’, connecting Asia, the Muslim World, and the West.
To some extent this combination of neglect and ignorance is understandable. The general tendency to identify Islam with the Middle East and North Africa not only makes sense from a historical point of view; after all, Arabia is the cradle from where Islam first spread north and eastwards into the Fertile Crescent and Persia, and in a westerly direction into Egypt, Libya and the Maghreb. Also at the present day, it cannot be denied that many complicated political-religious issues that grip global media attention are concentrated in the Middle East. And for the reasons of geographical proximity, Turkey under the AKP is always mentioned as an example of a ‘third way’ between secularism and Islamism, while Indonesia is generally ignored.