Indonesia was the second nation, after Japan, visited by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her first overseas mission for the Obama administration. This was brilliant and correct. There is broad consensus within foreign policy circles that the Asia rim poses the most complex challenges for the Obama administration.
Clinton, quite properly and naturally, had a center of focus for each Asian nation she visited. In Japan, it was strengthening the two countries’ alliance – with an angry glance over her shoulder at North Korea. In South Korea, the North Korean missile threat brought out the weary phraseology of conflict diplomacy – that the North’s actions were "very unhelpful” and the U.S. was “watching very closely."
That is good enough, though no nation considers itself a "rogue state," and normal human pride, not to mention Beloved Leader pride, raises the question of who gets to decide who's allowed to test missiles, and who not?
The Indonesia stop had a different essential message. "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seeking to reinvigorate Washington's ties with the Islamic world, said the Obama administration will develop relations with Indonesia as part of a U.S. diplomatic push in Southeast Asia," the Wall St. Journal said.
Again, this is a fine direction and an excellent message from the Obama administration, one of urgent necessity and launched in the right place. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country – around 200 million, or 86 percent of the population, are Muslim. A highly blessed confluence of geography and cultural and religious history has evolved into an exemplary vision for Muslim politics and society.
As Mark Duff, religious affairs reporter for the BBC, put it:
The national motto is "unity in diversity."
The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila, include a belief in God. But beyond this, religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths - even though almost 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim.
Moderation is therefore built into the country's constitutional framework.
Also part of the wisdom of placing this childhood home of President Barack Obama in the front line of foreign relations is its important domestic implications.
There are now 7 million Muslims in the United States, and another 1 million in Canada. Though still a small percent of the population, Muslims in America are important for a number of reasons: They are a multiform community – multi-ethnic, made up of both indigenous and immigrant communities – and compared to the rest of the population, they tend to be young, well-educated and positioned in solid middle-to-affluent economic demographics.
But perhaps most important is that Muslims in America tend to be religious, with attendance at Jumma, or Friday prayers, at a full 94 percent and mosque participation growing fully 75 percent in five years.
It is foundational to American thinking that religiosity functions as a spiritual and moral force in society. Spirituality and religiosity are helpful for the health and well-being of a country, especially in multi-faith environments with religious freedom.
Yet there is a vital cautionary note that must be recognized by Clinton and Obama. Islam is a religion. The administration’s actions and policy must reflect a deep understanding of the purely religious aspects of relations with "Islam."
To move properly in this arena requires consultation with knowledgeable religionists, most especially those with hard-won wisdom and expertise in interfaith relations. Despite well-meaning intent, these political figures cannot risk confusing political activity such as U.S.-Indonesia relations with religious activity such as improving relations with "the Muslim world."
This distinction is urgent and imperative. Failure to recognize the distinction is fraught with peril. U.S. relations with Indonesia, and with all the world's "Muslim regimes," must include elements that are "purely religious" in nature. Nations and religions and religious belief are different, and people like Clinton and Obama are trained in the former and not in the latter.
Obama is a self-confessed Christian. It is not impossible for him to understand and appreciate Islam, but it is not automatic either. Forging ever-deepening bonds across boundaries of true and passionately held religious faith is hard work and traverses a rewarding if perilous course. Missteps are easy in the world of interreligious relations and can have dire political consequences.
I offer praise for both the fact and the substance of the Indonesia visit. But I urge caution and beseech Clinton and Obama to avail themselves of sound counsel from people who know the difference between international and interreligious relations, and who are deeply steeped through life accomplishments in the latter.
Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.