Islam in Indonesia at glance

Indonesia became the world’s largest Muslim country over a period spanning centuries, yet experts are still undecided on how it actually came about. In Indonesia, Islam spread peacefully unlike in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, where it came under its sway as a result of Arab conquests.

Islam came late to the archipelago known since 1965 as Indonesia (‘the isles of India’). Though it is likely that merchants from Gujarat first brought the new religion to Sumatra in the 9th century, it was not until the 13th century that the religion began to grow. It spread, not on the hooves of conflict and conquest, but on the winds of trade and commerce. This had important consequences. Its narratives, some of its practices, and even certain strands of theology, gradually consorted and then blended with the legacy of Hinduism and Buddhism which had defined the culture of much of the archipelago for many centuries. Islam informed an already syncretic religious and cultural emanation that was Hindu and Buddhist and was particularly celebrated in the ancient dominant kingdoms of Crivijaya, Majapahit, and others.

Anyone arriving in Indonesia is struck with exhilaration by the narrative that Islam describes in this most pluralistic, tolerant, courteous, and civil of democratic nations. For, as well as having the largest Islamic population in the world, Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy. It also has some 9,000 populated islands amongst its necklaces of 17,000 isles in all. To visit one populated island a day would take an intrepid visitor 25 years. Over 700 languages are spoken in the country. As well some 230 million Muslims, Indonesia is also home to around 25 million Christians and significant Hindu and Buddhist minorities . Diversity – human, linguistic, ethnic, religious, cultural, biological, zoological, botanical, environmental – cannot but be the defining attribute of this remarkable nation.

The Bahasa Indonesia language has a lovely word, Kerukunan, which means communal harmony and concord. It is the concept of Kerukunan to inspire a project to celebrate the plurality, diversity and inclusiveness of Indonesia and to help re-set some international assumptions which too glibly stereotype and demonise religions, particularly Islam. But it shouldn’t be claimed that Indonesia is a nirvana of peace and religious tolerance. Like too many countries, Indonesia has known its headline terrorist attacks, such as the horrendous Bali bombing of 2002 followed by a spasmodic series of further outrages.

So it seems that, where religious conversion has been the result of socioeconomic interaction and integration, and where there is a long-nurtured culture of civility across broad ethnic diversity, a narrative of tolerance and a more benign geopolitics can be dominant. And recent years have brought Indonesia peace, democratisation, a booming economy, and increasing soft power.

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