Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Risks of Indonesia Falling Asleep in an Age of Spin

Not very long ago Indonesia underwent a major makeover. Forgive the journalistic license, but it was as if citizens went to bed living in the world’s third largest democracy and woke up in the world’s largest Islamic state. This came as a shock to many citizens because, since the demise of the New Order, many had understood that they had been happily living in both.

Before this first metamorphosis, Indonesia was usually described by all kinds of analysts and journalists as an emerging, middle-income, newly democratized country that was doing quite well for itself — sometimes willingly, sometimes begrudgingly — but always quietly giving itself up to democracy creep and adopting many internationally sanctioned standards on everything from food hygiene to the freedom of the press and fiscal probity. It lumbered on at its own pace, somewhat despite what was happening to its Asean and other Asian neighbors, merrily charting its own course.

So successful was this nation in keeping a low profile that for a long time, it was hardly ever mentioned in the media at all. Print, radio and TV reports occasionally lifted the lid on a political or social challenge uncovered either by democracy wallahs in the guise of corruption, less-than-stellar delivery of public goods and services, lacking human development or by disaster wallahs as a result of being prone to natural disasters or disease. Rarely was it even mentioned that the country was home to the world’s largest number of Muslims. And if it was asserted thus, the hyperbole was quickly tempered by the reality that Indonesia, then as now, has been a secular country since the defining 1960s, run on the basis of a secular constitution that upholds the value of all major religions and celebrates all religious holidays with equal gusto.

Exactly when the nation’s first transformation was secured is not clear. Was it a result of 9/11, the Bali bombings, the first or second rounds of hotel bombings, the capture of terrorists at home, or was it when homegrown news about religious extremism began to emerge? Naming a time is not so important, because, despite the journalistic license noted above, this first process of the nation’s metamorphosis actually occurred gradually, as each of the above events played out. Change really did not take place overnight; it just seemed that way. But this first metamorphosis was an omen of the more critical changes that have since taken place.

The first metamorphosis prompted news reports and other Indonesia-related research to start an “analysis” of the nation with the assertion that ours was either the country housing the world’s largest number of Muslims or the world’s largest Islamic state.

For a while simply mentioning the large numbers of Muslims in Indonesia was as far as it went. But as time went on reporting changed from emphasizing that the majority of Indonesians were Muslims and morphed into how important Islam is in Indonesia, which then became an “emergence” of the country’s Islam, which then became a “rise” of Islam in Indonesia, which then became the “dominance” of Islam in Indonesia; and now we read about the dangers and consequences of “extremism” of Islam in Indonesia. To some shocked observers, the nation had gone down a slippery slope from being defined as an emergent democracy to being a source of homegrown Islamic terrorists. Neutral religious demographics morphed over time into the demographics of religious extremism.

While it did happen over time, the speed and seeming inexorability with which this rebranding of the nation has taken place has been as difficult to fathom as the darkest oceans that surround the country.

In this rebranding process, the country has become a hideous stereotype beyond all recognition to many of its people and for many of its analysts and watchers. Some observers are creating an Indonesian monolith that, for the most part, is unrecognizable. There is less and less space left to voice other realities. Space, for instance in which to recognize that the overwhelming majority of the nation’s Muslims are far and away extremely moderate in their views and that even within the Muslim community here the richness of views on religion, culture and learning (to mention but a few areas) is as varied and attractive as an overflowing table of Padang food. There really is something for everyone here.

But this rebranding, which highlights religious demographics over democratic credentials, says as much about the re-brander as the rebranded. It would be easy to fall into the conspiracy theory that all Western (read non-Islamic) commentators on Indonesia are only out to discredit the nation because it is Islamic. This would be just another stereotype to refute. But the change in reporting on Indonesia is deliberate and real. To many commentators the nation has changed. But is this not true of the rest of the world as well?

And if the world indeed has changed everywhere, does it really matter how our nation appears to the outside world?

Further, is Islam merely more important than it has ever been here, or is Islam more important everywhere? Are journalists and other Indonesia watchers simply documenting this change? Stories about change and ensuing embattled views certainly sell better than those that document the status quo in which we all get on together. But when crude stereotypes inform these stories and nuance is lost to broad caricature, there inevitably will be consequences. At the macro level, as views toward a particular country morph, other countries and their official assistance to them can change significantly; look no further than Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Libya to mention but a few.

In Indonesia this process of spin has led to a direct rise in the number of donor funds being spent on madrassas relative to other parts of the education system. Stereotypes do have policy ramifications.

Stereotypes and reputations are equally important at the micro level. In the magnificent film “Cabaret,” which documents the rise of Nazism through the songs and skits of 1930s Berlin Cabaret halls, one comes to understand how important it is for any medium to report responsibly. Not only did these songs and skits reflect civil society’s views about Jews and Nazism, they informed them too. This is no less the case for reporting in Indonesia, whatever the medium. In summary, reviewers and reporters on Indonesia need to avoid clich├ęs and attempt to present issues in an in-depth and nuanced manner so that, in the harsh light of a new day, we wake up in the same country in which we went to sleep. From Strategic Asia a policy and business advisory consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian countries .

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