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Islamic threat to Indonesian foreign policy?

By Dr. Terry Lacey

(May 11, Jakarta, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) will reportedly have a leader of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as his Vice Presidential running mate. He will almost certainly win the Presidential election on July 8th with his Islamic allies. This means a new window on the world for Indonesia, affecting Muslim and Arab States as well as the West and Asia . But does it mean an Islamic threat to Indonesian foreign policy ?

Four Islamic-linked parties, the PKS, the National Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP), have united with the Democratic-led coalition, and 12 other small parties, representing 46 percent of voters, and more than half the seats in the House of Representatives.

This powerful electoral coalition of the Democratic Party, with the PKS in a pivotal role, means Islamic politics will play a greater role in Indonesian foreign policy.

But although the PKS has been partly inspired by Egypt´s Muslim Brotherhood, its evolution is part of a normal cycle in Indonesian Muslim politics, whereby younger leaders, inspired by Muslim internationalism, gain influence in the mosques and mass organizations and put forward new ideas, while an older generation of more conservative leaders are displaced.

Meanwhile to assume the four main Indonesian Islamic parties are all the same would be wrong, just as bundling together internationally Islamic parties, Islamists, fundamentalists and tribal conservative militias hiding under Islamic hats has proved to be similarly erroneous and counter-productive.

The PKS remains the most modern democratic manifestation of the new wave of political Islam in Indonesia, with party cells and activists embedded in mosques, local communities and mass organizations. It has lost some conservative support for being too modern, and probably vice versa !

The most likely shifts in foreign policy are already under way and the PKS and other Islamic parties may bring new emphasis, rather than abrupt changes of direction.

Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) confirmed that significant changes in foreign policy were unlikely. (Jakarta Post 08-05.09).

On relations with Palestine and Israel, Indonesia, along with the West, is bemused. Foreign policy orthodoxy says to support the twin state solution but Israelis and Palestinians in practice are not ready for comprehensive talks and are increasingly cynical about or opposed to the twin state solution.

The PKS would be more sympathetic to Hamas than Gus Dur, the previous Indonesian president and PKB leader, who observed Gaza and Hamas from an observation post through an Israeli telescope.

PKS sympathy for Hamas, is combined with dialogue on the PKS web site on innovative solutions for the Middle East, including eventual regional economic cooperation with Israel, but for that to happen the new Israeli leaders have to wheel and deal instead of roar and war.

Israel should not underestimate the potential long term flexibility of Islamic political parties like the Indonesian PKS and Hamas provided issues of political and economic justice can be addressed. Despite their anger over the Gaza war the Turkish government, led by the Islamic Justice and Development Party, has close relations with Israel. Turkey is a cornerstone of NATO and seeks EU membership.

Political Islam is an expression of aspirations and identity, not a declaration of war. The militancy of Hamas reflects the injustices of loss of land, military occupation, imprisonment of a people in a tiny strip of land and economic blockade, not some innate violence or hostility to others within Islam. The foreign policy of Islamic parties, just like any others, is based on interests, not on mythology.

Gaza is the deal breaker and Gaza comes first to get things moving in the Middle East. The PKS and its coalition allies may be able to help influence moves to end the logjam on relations with Hamas and the blockade of Gaza. This would be a great step forward.

Meanwhile Indonesia is building economic links with Iran, Syria and Libya and similarly with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States. The Middle East cannot impose its political divisions on Indonesian economic and trade interests and neither the Democratic Party nor its Islamic party coalition partners would accept that. British Prime Minister Palmerston said many years ago “British interests first and foremost”. SBY will say the same for Indonesia in his new government with his Islamic allies.

The new coalition could mean a more sympathetic framework to help Thailand and the Philippines resolve Muslim separatist disputes.

Meanwhile, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is gradually facing up to the end of a 50 year monopoly on federal state power in Malaysia, while the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) has allied with non-Muslim communities and parties to bring about modernization of a mainly Muslim society. This is flexibility not bigotry. The new Indonesian coalition could be expected to be cautiously pro-reform while sympathetic to Muslim concerns and supportive of Malaysia and its people.

Finally the presence of the PKS and Islamic parties in the coalition can be held up by the United States and the West as an example of political accommodation, moderation and dialogue rather than having gung-ho Western hard-liners running for their tin hats in the face of the Islamic threat. Perhaps the Islamic parties will come round for lunch, but people would look silly having lunch with them wearing tin hats.

Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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