Culture matters in foreign policy
All of last week I have been travelling through Southeast-Asia as part of an official delegation accompanying the German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier. Having blogged about him before on Culture Matters, I was really interested to find out how “culture matters” in international politics.
As it turned out, culture did play a small, but significant part in Steinmeiers agenda in Indonesia and Vietnam. After arriving in Jakarta, our first event consisted of a small round table discussion with prominent members of the Muslim and Christian communities. Participants included Ali Alatas, former Foreign Minister and special envoy to the Indonesian President, Komaruddin Hidayat, director of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Nasaruddin Umar, General Director for “Religious Guidance” at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. From the Christian side there were Soritua Nababann (former Bishop of the largest Protestant Church in Indonesia, the Batak,) and the Jesuit Franz Magnis-Suseno (whose work on Indonesian culture I had read as a young student).
Like others, Steinmeier – who is a politician of the German Socialist Party and also deputy Prime Minister – sees the largest Muslim country in the world as an important model for a moderate Islam and had wanted to be briefed on the state of affairs of religious relations and Islamist tendencies in Indonesia. The discussants – keeping to the image of conflict-avoiding Indonesians – painted a predominantly optimistic image of their society. All of them stressed that
Islam is not a monolithic entity
- religion had been used by certain politicians in the past for their own interest
- the local context had to be taken into consideration when looking at the Indonesian variety
- there was lot of internal differentiation within the Muslim communities and the radical potential was limited to a few small groups
- Western media routinely exaggerated the radical tendencies without understanding the reality on the ground
Makruf Jamhari, an anthropologist, with a PhD from the Australian National University and now Vice-director of the State Islamic University, pointed us to a number of studies showing that the majority of citizens see democracy as an integral part of Indonesia. Also only a very limited number support the introduction of Sharia law.
Conflict was largely absent from the discussion. Yet, when the Director General of the Ministry of Religious Affairs mentioned as an example of peaceful religious co-existence the so-called “Christmas friendship”, whereby Muslims protect Christians to worship freely in their churches, one is left to wonder, why such protection has to be necessary in the first place.
By the end of the discussion I was curious to find out whether this distinguished set of people, who had all stressed the differences between various Muslim populations across the world, found the concept of “civilizations” really useful. Unfortunately this seemed one deconstruction too many and none of the participants were willing to question their work for an “Alliance for Civilizations”. I am left to wonder why?
To be continued …