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Analysts Note Indonesian Reality is Less Ominous Than Recent Headlines - 2002-05-11

The headlines talk of tumult, riots, separatism and growing Islamic extremism. But the Indonesian reality is less ominous, say analysts who note the spread of democracy and the general tolerance of its people.

They call themselves the Taliban and act accordingly. They invade hotels and cafes, seize the liquor supply and stash it away alongside boxes of pornographic videos.

They are planning no party, says the Washington Post, but are cleaning up the Indonesian town of Tasikmalaya on behalf of strict Muslim fundamentalism. They are part of a growing movement to impose Sharia, Koranic law, on Indonesia. Their combined political parties now control an estimated 20-percent of the seats in parliament. They believe the future is theirs.

Other Indonesians emphatically do not. They say the U.S. war on terror and, in particular, U.S. support of Israel has added to extremist numbers, but their growth is limited.

That is also the opinion of Ralph Peters, a former military intelligence officer and author of the forthcoming "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World." He recently returned from extensive travels in Indonesia. "The good news is that the overwhelming majority of the Indonesian people do not want anything to do with extreme fundamentalism. They do not want anything to do with factional or sectional violence," he says. "The problems are created by a minority of a minority, and we need to recognize that. Most of the population wants a tolerant, live-and-let-live version of Islam."

There surely are Islamic terrorists in Indonesia, says Mr. Peters. Since it is composed of some 17,000 islands, it is a good place to hide.

The U.S. military could help, says Mr. Peters, but it is currently banned from offering training and assistance because of the Indonesian army's brutality in East Timor in 1999. That is too bad, says Mr. Peters because the U.S. military promotes democracy along with efficiency.

He cautions that Indonesia is too important to ignore. It has the largest Muslim population of any nation, and much of the world's trade passes through its sea lanes.

Do not be put off by all the noise coming from Indonesia, says Donald Emmerson of the Asia/Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. That is the sound of democracy in an early stage. Released from the constraints of military rule, Indonesians are discovering their voice and celebrating their religion. "Since these 220-million people who live in Indonesia are 87-percent Muslim, it is not entirely surprising that democratization means a kind of manifestation of the Islamic religion in the political realm," he says. "To some extent, it is unavoidable. It does not mean violence, al-Qaeda, revolution, bloodshed, overthrow - no."

Mr. Emmerson says he does not mean to minimize the violence that stems from religious zealotry, both Muslim and Christian. But he thinks the headlines are misleading. "Americans reading these media have, perhaps, an unfortunate, but understandable, tendency to conclude that the Muslim world is indeed a very violent place," he says. "That is not so in Indonesia. Indonesia, I think, has an admirable record of having maintained relative social peace among its many diverse communities, and I only hope that record will be maintained."

Violence often erupts over local issues, but after traveling to many parts of Indonesia, Ralph Peters was struck by a pervasive sense of nation. "One of the real surprises for me, even on outer islands, was the degree to which people of all confessions identified themselves as Indonesians and saw the benefits of their relationship with the central government in Jakarta. We tend to focus, of course, on the violent headlines and miss the fact that this state is making it against tremendous odds," he says.

Give democracy a chance in Indonesia, urges Mr. Peters. Do not find fault with every misstep. Keep in mind the impressive strides forward.