Consisting of over 17,000 islands between Australia and China, Indonesia is a critical presence in a strategically important area. Islam, democracy and modernity not only coexist, but thrive in this mixture of hundreds of ethnic groups and many different languages. Join Active Minds as we examine what's working (and what’s not) in the world's largest Islamic country.

Key Lecture Points

  • Indonesia is a vast and ethnically diverse nation with a history of outside influence followed by a brief period characterized by dictatorship.  Since 1999, however, Indonesia has rapidly moved in the direction of democracy, in hopes of creating a new form of internal political stability.   Indonesia is also the world’s largest Muslim nation, with nearly 240 million adherents.
  • Both Buddhism and Hinduism spread to the area from southeast Asia in the centuries before the advent of the Europeans and Islam.
  • The so-called Spice Islands of Indonesia were among the earliest targets of European voyages of discovery starting in the sixteenth century, with the Dutch becoming the dominant colonial power starting in the seventeenth century.
  • As in many parts of the world, Indonesians sought independence from European colonial control in the early the twentieth century.  Following Japanese occupation during World War II, Indonesia acquired its independence from Dutch colonial control in 1949, but not without the Dutch fighting to maintain its colonial holding.
  • The ensuing decades saw the political dominance of two strongmen — Sukarno in 1945, and Suharto from 1965-1998.
  • As of 2023, Indonesia has conducted four successive Presidential elections that have been seen as democratic models and among the largest in the world.
  • There continue to be tensions in this diverse and new democracy.  Among them are the differences to be expected between different cultures in this sprawling country, some of which periodically erupt violently.  The saga of East Timor serves as one example.  Like other countries, Indonesia continues to confront differences in how various factions believe a modern Islamic state should operate.
  • Indonesia also faces continual, severe natural disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, major storms — that strain its disaster response resources.
  • Finally, as a major world economy in Asia, Indonesia is attempting to balance its economic stability and growth with the emergence of China as a major economic, military, and political power in the world, while also maintaining good relations with the United States.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you feel that Islam can be part of a peaceful democracy that includes other religions and religious beliefs? Or do you feel the extremism of the religion precludes such tolerance?
  • What do you feel is ahead for Indonesia? Do you feel the relative political and religious peace of the last two decades can continue?
  • What do you remember about the 2004 tsunami that affected Indonesia so strongly?
  • Have you ever traveled to Indonesia? When you picture it, what do you envision?

More to Explore

  • Overview of Indonesian history and current events Click here
  • Timeline of Indonesian history Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Hellwig, Tineke, Tagliacozzo, Eric, Tineke, Hellwig. The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press, 2009. 477 pages. "The Indonesia Reader" includes more than 150 selections: journalists' articles, explorers' chronicles, photographs, poetry, stories, cartoons, drawings, letters, speeches, and more.
    Click here to order
  • Aspinall, Edward. Islam and Nation: Separatist Rebellion in Aceh, Indonesia. Stanford University Press, 2009. 312 pages. Rooted in the latest theoretical debates about nationalism and ethnicity, yet written in an accessible and engaging style, "Islam and Nation" presents a fascinating study of the genesis, growth and decline of a nationalist movement.
    Click here to order