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Another reason to pay attention to Indonesia is a self-interested one, though a justifiable self-interest. We need to learn why Muslims from the US are 20 times more likely than Muslims from Indonesia to try to join ISIS, and why Muslims from England or other parts of Europe are 100 times more likely to do so.

How do we overcome the ideology of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda? America has been in a war for at least 17 years. No military or counterterrorism person I know believes that another year or 10 years or 20 years of brutal fighting will end the power of the ideologies that underlie and renew these protean conflicts. This war will be won only by Muslims who can discredit and defeat the radicals’ interpretations of Islam.

Since they suffer from these same ideological and physical attacks, important Indonesian Muslims want to be our allies in this struggle. On our aforementioned six-week tour, sponsored by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson along with the Leimena Institute, were:

  • Ambassador Jakob Tobing, who—after the fall of Soeharto in 1998—chaired Indonesia’s first democratic election and then for three years chaired the commission that rewrote the constitution into a democratic document. A Christian, he is in many ways a second founding father of Indonesia.
  • Alwi Shihab, former lecturer at Harvard, former foreign minister, and now the Indonesian president’s special envoy to the Middle East and to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
  • Azra Azyumardi, a distinguished historian, advisor to Indonesia’s vice president, and former president of the State Islamic University in Jakarta. He is also a Commander of the British Empire, an award granted by the Queen for his services in countering extremism.
  • Amin Abdullah, former president of the State Islamic University in Jogjakarta and current advisor to the sultan and governor of Jogjakarta. He is a philosopher who has developed new hermeneutics of Qur’anic interpretation and helped reform the curriculum of the Islamic universities.

They are a formidable group: powerful, learned, pious, kind, and committed.

As Shihab told us on the tour:

“Fifteen years ago, you were fighting Al Qaeda. Now you, and we, are fighting ISIS. Fifteen years from now, you will be fighting some other organization. But it is the same war; it is the same ideology. You need us, and we need you. We can be friends fighting a common enemy.”

As we struggle with increasing terrorism in the West, and extremism and bloody chaos in much of the Middle East, the threats to Indonesia—and especially Indonesian religion—deserve our focused and abiding attention.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University; senior fellow at the Leimena Institute, Jakarta, Indonesia; and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author and editor of more than 20 books on religion and politics.

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