- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

No one doubts the United States has played a major role in helping Indonesia consolidate its democracy. It began in 1970s, when the U.S. government provided grants and scholarships for Indonesia’s future leaders to study at the best U.S. universities. On returning home, the students disseminated the values of democracy they studied in the U.S. and later even fought for the values to be put into practice, leading to the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998.

U.S. government and institutions also actively helped the Indonesian government rebuild the country. In the post-Suharto regime, the U.S. government greatly contributed to preparations for a free and fair election in 1999. The successful election laid a firm basis for Indonesia, the largest Muslim country with 240 million people, to further consolidate its fledgling democracy.

The great help from the U.S. has convinced Indonesians they are justified in using the U.S. as a reference in pursuing democratic transition, especially in that the U.S. is the world’s oldest democracy. However, events following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have caused doubts among Indonesians, including democracy activists and progressive Muslims, about the U.S. example.

Indonesians have been disillusioned with President Bush’s war on terror and attack to Iraq. Initially, the Muslims condemned the September 2001 terrorist attack, and were ready to cooperate with the U.S. government to fight the terrorists. But, when the word “crusade” was initially used in a speech by Mr. Bush, they felt cornered.

The attack on Iraq alienated Muslims much more. The initial Muslim response was that it was an attack against another Muslim country. The opposition intensified after the justifications used for that attack on a sovereign country were disproven. Muslims learned the U.S. government misled the people by saying the Iraq regime under Saddam Hussein was storing and was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and therefore had to be brought down. In fact, no such weapons were found after the successful U.S. invasion.

The Bush administration also defended its invasion of Iraq as a move to liberate the Iraqis from a despotic Saddam Hussein. But why does the U.S, leader of the free and democratic world, liberate only Iraq? Why it does not liberate Syria, Saudi Arabia and many other countries also led by the autocrats?

The opposition has been emboldened by the global community sharing an anti-U.S. sentiment. In a global BBC survey held early this year by GlobeScan , the U.S. popularity in the world in the last two years had sharply declined. Nearly 75 percent of 26,000 people interviewed in the survey disagreed with U.S. policy toward Iraq, while almost 50 percent said the U.S. now plays a mainly negative role in the world. The respondents in the survey were from Europe, Africa, Asia (including Indonesians), South America and the Middle East.

The trend discourages Muslim progressive and democracy activists. The United States has been associated with democracy, and the messy U.S. foreign policy may adversely affect the struggle to consolidate democratic values in Indonesia.

It can be dangerous. People who lose trust in the U.S. may turn another way they think will work better. The attack on Iraq may only exacerbate deep-seated suspicions of Western values and lead them to turn toward other values, which included conservative Wahhabi values promoted by the Saudi Arabian government.

Amid an aggressive Saudi approach, including scholarships provided to Middle Eastern and Egyptian universities, Indonesians are increasingly shifting toward the right as shown by the growing popularity of women wearing a veil and the tendency of young people to give greater support to the conservative parties, including the Justice and Prosperous Party (PKS). The rightist party garnered only 1.36 percent of the 106 million votes cast in the 1999 election. Five years later, its percentage rose sharply to 7.34 percent of 113 million votes cast. The party’s anticorruption platform may build on the number of votes it got in the 2004 election, but the tendency of Muslim conservatism, especially among the young, must be taken into account.

Troop withdrawals from Iraq may help restore the Muslim public’s confidence in the United States. Other possible strategies include increasing constructive dialogue between Muslims and the West; helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; intensifying people-to-people exchanges; and greater educational opportunities for Muslim leaders in the United States.

A’an Suryana is a staff writer with the Jakarta Post, a leading English daily newspaper in Indonesia. He is a Hubert Humphrey Fellow with the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, which included an internship with The Washington Times.

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