The Republic of Indonesia

System: MENA

Download as a PDF

This fact sheet will briefly introduce the importance of Indonesia to the MENA region and beyond with regard to three key issues: its dynamic geopolitical and religious nature; its current struggle for its political and religious identity; and its influence on developments in the MENA Region and beyond.

A Dynamic Geopolitical and Religious Nature

During his 1970 visit to Indonesia, Blessed Paul VI described the mixture of geographical, political, and religious elements that makes Indonesia so unique:

“As we approached your shores, we were able to admire from above the rich verdant lands of this endless chain of islands which make your beautiful country one of the world’s greatest in length. Because of its extent, it is also a country in which many races, cultures and religions live side by side. All the great religions of the world meet here: Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucianist and Christian; all of them are recognized as official religions by the country’s constitution, which moreover sets up as one of the five pillars of the country, faith in a ‘Divine Omnipotence.’”   

As an archipelago nation spreading over 3,000 miles and 17,000 islands, Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country, the world’s third largest democracy, and Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. There are literally hundreds of languages spoken. A key factor is that about 85 % of its 253,609,643 people identify as Muslim (the vast majority of which are Sunni), giving the Republic of Indonesia the largest Muslim population (over 200,000,000) of any single nation in the world. To put the number in perspective, the entire Muslim population of the MENA Region is approximately 315,000,000. The Christian population of Indonesia is roughly 10%, with Catholics comprising about 3%.

A Struggle for Identity in Modernity

St. John Paul II, noted in 1989, that “one of the principal challenges facing modern Indonesia is that of building a harmonious society from the many diverse elements which are the source of the nation’s present promise and future greatness.” These different elements are due to the rich cultural, religious, and political background of this former Dutch colony (independent since 1945). Though Islam is arguably the single most powerful factor in Indonesia today, Indonesia is not an Islamic State as such. Most Indonesians have opted for a view that emphasizes national diversity as a source of strength. The Indonesian motto of Bhinekka Tunggal Ika (normally translated as Unity in Diversity) and the constitutionally enshrined set of moral principles known as the Pancasila are emblematic in this regard For this reason some have described Indonesia as a bastion of hope and good practices especially for some areas of the MENA region that yearn for peaceful integration and coexistence. Blessed Paul VI went so far as to say that it was “a joy to praise the [Indonesian] Government and people for the fine example thus given to the world of a high religious sense, and of collaboration and reciprocal enrichment in diversity.”

For others, however, events in the recent history of Indonesia have cast a shadow of doubt on the continued peace in Indonesia. The Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 attributed to the Indonesia based Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah remain in the consciousness of the Indonesian people. Efforts by the Islamic State (الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام‎) to recruit and seek support within the Indonesian population have added to the fear that extremist ideologies may creep into what has previously been “moderate” Muslim populations. Though the Indonesian government has recently taken strong positions against the Islamic State and terrorist activity, there are questions as to how extremism will factor into the future of Islam in Indonesia. Particularly relevant is the rapidly increasing integration of Sharia-inspired law in some regions of the country and reports of increased persecution of religious minorities. Also of concern is the fact that despite the overall economic growth in Indonesia there are 100 million Indonesians living on two dollars USD a day or less, which, in turn, could provide a fertile ground for extremism to take root.

The Global Effects of Indonesia’s Destiny

Indonesia is poised to be of primary strategic importance in the years to come. The sheer number of Muslims in Indonesia alone is not something to be taken lightly. Additionally, the fact that Indonesia is experiencing relatively positive economic and political development only increases its strength and visibility. These present dynamics at play in Indonesia render it a powerful global conduit for whatever sociopolitical vision of Islam may take hold there. Groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and the Islamic State could find fertile grounds to foster and export new breeds of terrorism. Conversely, the world could find in a stable and unified Indonesia a guiding light toward hope, harmony and mutual enrichment.

A number of questions arise. As a Muslim majority nation facing the threat of radical Islam, will Indonesia be able to continue on its course towards “unity in diversity”? Will the continued national growth and success of Indonesia be enough to testify persuasively to the validity of its approach? In ultimate analysis, the trajectory of Indonesia will be determinative not only to the modern Indonesian identity but also to the modern sociopolitical identity of Islam. This in turn will echo into the MENA region and beyond. Media efforts will thus play a crucial role, both from within and outside of Indonesia, in helping the world perceive the reality of what is taking place there.


Indonesia is of primary importance to the MENA region and beyond due to its dynamic geopolitical and religious nature, the current struggle for its political and religious identity, and the effects that its development will have in the future. It is hoped that the guiding ideals of Indonesia, in the words of St. John Paul II, “will be fully realized in the life of all her people.”

[1] Pope Paul VI, Welcome Ceremony at Jakarta Airport, (Dec. 3 1970), speeches/1970/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19701203_arrivo-indonesia_en.html.

[2] The World Fact Book: Indonesia, U.S. CENT. INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, the-world-factbook/geos/id.html; Indonesia Profile, BBC NEWS, 1239; Indonesia Country Brief, AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Drew DeSilver, World’s Muslim Population More Widespread Than You Might Think, PEW RESEARCH CENTER, June 7, 2013,

[6] The World Fact Book: Indonesia, U.S. CENT. INTELLIGENCE AGENCY.

[7] Pope John Paul II, Meeting With the Leaders of the Major Religious Communities of Indonesia, (Oct. 10, 1989), documents/hf_jpii_spe_19891010_capi-rel igiosi_en.html.


[9] The Indonesian legal system contains elements of Roman/Dutch, customary, and Shariah-inspired law. The five principles of the Pancasila are foundational and are as follows: the belief in the one and only God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives, and social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia. See Facts about Indonesia, INDONESIAN EMBASSY LONDON – UNITED KINGDOM, facts.html; Chapters 2, 4, and 5 of UNDERSTANDING ISLAM IN INDONESIA: POLITICS AND DIVERSITY.

[10] For example, according to Hillary Clinton: “If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.” See Mark Landler, Clinton Praises Indonesian Democracy, N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 18, 2009,

[11] Pope Paul VI, Welcome Ceremony at Jakarta Airport.

[12] See for example, Bernard Lane, More Rigid Islam in Indonesia, THE AUSTRALIAN, July 13, 2013,; THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF ISLAM: INSIDE INDONESIA, (PBS 2007).

[13] Founded in Malaysia in 1993 and later with headquarters in Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah is a radical Islamic terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda. See Chapter 6 of UNDERSTANDING ISLAM IN INDONESIA: POLITICS AND DIVERSITY; Jemaah Islamiyah, THE NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER, http://www.;  Sara Schonhardt, 10 Years After Bali Bombings Local Militants Still Pose Threat, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 11, 2012, html?pagewanted=all.

[14] See Joseph Chinyong, ISIS Goes to Asia, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Sept. 19, 2014, articles/142004/joseph-chinyong-liow/isis-goes-to-asia; Suzanne Dredge & Peter Lloyd, ISIS Recruitment Video “Join the Ranks” Urges Indonesian Muslims to Migrate to the Islamic State, AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION NEWS, July 28, 2014,; INSTITUTE FOR POLICY ANALYSIS OF CONFLICT, The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia, Sept. 24, 2014,

[15] In August 2014, then President Yudhoyono of Indonesia stated that the actions of ISIS are “embarrassing” and “humiliating” to Islam. However, Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah group involved with the Bali bombings has declared his support for ISIS, and it is reported that an ISIS Indonesian and Malaysian Military Unit has been formed . See Staff Writer, Indonesian President Says Islamic State Extremists Humiliate and Embarrass Muslims, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, Aug. 21, 2014,;  Zakir Hussain Shannon Teoh, ISIS Fighters From Malaysia, Indonesia Form Military Unit, THE STRAITS TIMES, September 26, 2014,

[16] See for example: Mathias Hariyadi, West Java: Islamic Extremists Stop Catholics Celebrating Mass, ASIA NEWS, Nov. 13, 2014,; Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Indonesia’s Aceh Province Debates Public Floggings for Homosexuality, THE GUARDIAN, Sept. 24 2014,; Indonesia Profile, BBC NEWS,

[17] See, for example, Editorial Board, America’s Big Bet on Indonesia, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 4, 2014,; Iin P. Handayani, Beyond Statistics of Poverty, THE JAKARTA POST, Feb. 13, 2012, /2012/02/13/beyond-statistics-poverty.html.

[18] St. John Paul II offered this beautiful prayer for the Indonesia people: “I pray for the day when the ideals which guide your nation will be fully realized in the life of all her people. In acknowledging the presence of legitimate diversity, in respecting the human and political rights of all citizens, and in encouraging the growth of national unity based on tolerance and respect for others, you lay the foundations for that just and peaceful society which all Indonesians wish for themselves and long to bequeath to their children.” John Paul II, Meeting With the President of the Republic of Indonesia, Oct. 9, 1989, october/documents/hf_jpii_spe_19891009_pres-indonesia_en.html.

Comments are closed.