Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

American, Indonesian experts discuss Islam and democracy at televised forum

While acknowledging recent U.S. foreign policy missteps in the Muslim world, experts in Washington and Jakarta spoke positively today about both the fledgling democratic government in Indonesia – the largest Muslim nation in the world – and the intrinsic compabilitality of Islam and democracy. The panelists spoke before a live studio audience in each city and to their cross-continental counterparts via live video feed for a televised town meeting hosted by American Abroad Media in Washington and Metro TV in Jakarta.

Calling Indonesia the “most important new democracy in the world over the last decade,” and a key example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, cited the country’s liberal intellectual tradition as a key reason for its successful transition out of forty years of dictatorship. Amien Rais, the former chairman of Indonesia’s People’s Consultative Assembly, echoed Gershman, saying that the majority of Indonesians accept democracy without a problem and noting that the country’s inaugural presidential elections in 2004 were carried out in a transparent and responsible manner.

Still, the panelists cautioned that a complete democratic transition will not be quick or easy. Karl Jackson, the director of Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that a revival of Indonesian civil society, destroyed by decades of repression, will take time. Gershman, meanwhile, stressed the importance of ensuring the separation of religion and politics.

Towards the middle of the forum, the discussion turned towards the U.S.’s foreign policy and image in the Muslim world. Rais connected low opinions of the U.S. throughout the region with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the controversies over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. He also expressed dismay at the American public’s acceptance of Bush administration policies. Gershman, for his part, said that the time since 9/11 has been a learning period for the U.S., with the need for greater multilateralism in relations with Muslim countries a key lesson.

The panelists also addressed negative public opinion among Indonesians towards the U.S., which, according to public polling, has fluctuated significantly in recent years, with a high of about 80 percent around the time of the Iraq invasion to a low of about 40 percent soon after the 2004 tsunami. The polls also suggest that 40 percent of Indonesians believe that the Bush administration’s “war on terror” is actually a campaign against Islam.


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