Google in Indonesia

Indonesian coffee klatsch. Photo: Emmy La Imu

Google will expand its operations in Indonesia and plans to open a local office by 2012, government officials announced, after encouraging talks between the Indonesian vice president and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. The reasons for the investment are obvious: Indonesia is the largest and fastest growing online market in Southeast Asia, and its ‘bright and promising’ digital start-up scene is ready to take off.

Social Media Musings, Southeast Asian Edition

Foreign policy: Still behind walls or more open to the people? photo: tbSMITH/flickr

As the highly contested treasure trove of the State Department WikiLeak just keeps giving and giving, an interesting and under reported cable came to light earlier this week. It had to do, quite unexpectedly, with the social media strategy of the US State Department and specifically, the US Embassy’s social media efforts in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Jakarta? You ask. Yes, interestingly enough the US mission in the growing Southeast Asian archipelago nation is the most active of all in this ‘new’ and rapidly evolving field of public diplomacy. With more than 300,000 ‘Likers’ on Facebook at present and an impressive presence on Twitter and Youtube, the US  mission in Jakarta was in a push to get a significantly bigger budget for its social media outreach in advance of President Obama’s November 2010 visit, the leaked cable reveals. Although the cable reveals nothing particularly controversial, it gives interesting insights into the growing importance of social media in America’s outreach efforts in highly connected developing countries, particularly in Asia. It also provides insights into the growing, albeit not openly publicized, funding involved in spreading the message about the US, its leadership and about its policies in the region by directly and interactively reaching out to a younger generation, active on Facebook and other social media channels. And the strategy seems to be working- in less than a year, the number of Likers on their Facebook page has grown six-fold, from 50,000 to 300,000 and the number of Twitter followers from 1,000 to more than 16,000, with regular interaction from fans of both services.

This development begs a lot of interesting questions about the future of public diplomacy:

  • Are other diplomatic missions, even just other US missions around the world, taking note of the Jakarta Embassy’s success?
  • Is there something unique and special about the Indonesian environment where social media-focused outreach efforts find particularly fertile ground beyond Obama’s personal connection to the country?
  • Is the ‘soft power’ message that they are getting out uniquely suited to the kind of informal, multisensory interactivity that services such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube represent and do these provide a highly fertile new ground for such ‘persuasive’ activities and the building of soft power across the world?
  • Is social media changing the landscape of public diplomacy drastically and for good and what might its long-term effects be?
  • Does this finally bring foreign relations closer to the people and their concerns or is it simply a veil behind which business-as-usual continues (the highly fortified US embassy in Jakarta, seen above, is a powerful reminder of this metaphorical paradox)?

For more information on this fascinating topic, check out our recent ISN Insights package on E-Diplomacy and look out for an article coming up in February on the specific impact that social media is having on foreign relations.

Keyword in Focus

From Pop Star to Jihadist?

Bali memorial, photo: crater/flickr

Now, this would certainly make for an unlikely path in life.

Rumours abound in Indonesia that jailed pop star Nasir “Ariel” Irham (jailed for his involvement in a sex scandal under the controversial 2008 anti-pornography law) has had contact with Abu Bakar Bashir, the notorious Indonesian jihadist and founding member of the notorious but increasingly weak Jemaah Islamiyah group, while in prison.

Although Bashir allegedly castigated the young man for his un-Islamic ways, the former heartthrob has reportedly been attending mass  prayer held my Bashir in prison and may have sought out advice from the radical cleric.

The fact that this information comes from Bashir’s personal assistant hardly makes it all that credible. The old man is probably just seeking some street cred among the increasingly non-Jemaah Islamiyah oriented young jihadists in Southeast Asia and ‘converting’ a young, ‘broken’ pop star to their cause might be good PR for the ailing demagogue.

Whatever the reality of the situation in this specific case, the story highlights some very important dilemmas: How a multicultural and tolerant Indonesia will deal with fundamentalist and religiously conservative pressures in the future and how young people, eager to embrace many aspects of more liberal western lifestyles (including pop stars), will deal with these pressures from below and above.

And perhaps more universally: How do you prevent and discourage radicalization in prisons, where psychological and physical conditions make young men particularly susceptible to a message that preaches power to those that are bound to feel powerless?

Our Digital Library offers a wealth of resources on the keywords psychology of terrorism and terrorism recruitment. Make sure to check out:

  • A USIP report on why young people join Al-Qaida
  • An RSIS commentary on the recruitment tactics of Indonesian jihadists
  • An RSIS paper examining the patterns of radicalization in Southeast Asia and the Jemaah Islamiyah group
  • An International Crisis Group briefing on the growing attractiveness of a jihadi narrative in the wake of the floods and worsening IDP crisis in Pakistan
  • An Elcano Royal Institute working paper on radicalization in the Muslim diaspora in Europe
  • A recent ISN Podcast on the Europeanization of jihad and the challenge this poses to counterradicalization efforts on the continent

Taunting Tolerance in Indonesia

Girls listening to religious teaching, photo: Paul Arps/flickr

Indonesia has long been known as a vibrant, tolerant and resilient country. With the world’s largest Muslim population, a fledgling democracy and a surprisingly vibrant economy (with corruption and poor infrastructure still hampering growth), Indonesia has, quite spectacularly, turned doomsday scenarios in the turbulent aftermath of the Suharto era to a laudable success story of post-colonial and post-authoritarian reconstruction.

While the economy bubbles along (surprisingly well given the global circumstances, as an Economist Special Report noted last year), Indonesian society is going through a process of self-discovery. With roots in arguably the most historically pluralistic form of Islam practiced in the Muslim world, Indonesians are looking to find their footing somewhere in between these roots and the shoots of a modern society that pushes for women’s rights, freedom of expression and further tolerance.

Even though Islamic political parties have never dominated the public realm in Indonesia (à la Malaysia, for example) with their support dropping by more than 10 percent to 26 percent in the 2009 legislative elections, a degree of accommodation has characterized the political process in the past. Although the government has been resolute in its pursuit of radical extremists, among them the infamous Jemaah Islamiyah group, it has also tolerated groups, preachers and religious schools that promote a more orthodox and intolerant (and arguably un-Indonesian) form of Islam.


ISN Weekly Theme: Islam in Southeast Asia

Muslim girls walking to school in Indonesia, photo: Shreyans Bhansali/flickr
Muslim girls walking to school in Indonesia, photo: Shreyans Bhansali/flickr

Islam, Islamic politics and religiously motivated violence are usually issues associated with the wider Middle East region or South Asia.

Less visible, yet no less significant is the presence of Islamic politics, tensions and political expression in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

A region marked by immense historical and religious diversity, by painful historical schisms, and in certain cases by an unrivaled dynamism and ability to marry Islam with modernity, Southeast Asia deserves closer inspection and more contextually sensitive analysis.

This week the ISN publishes a Special Report on the issue with a backgrounder on Islam in the region and a case study of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.

We have a wealth of further information on the topic in our Digital Library and Current Affairs section- check out:

  • In our Links section, check out the website of the National Bureau of Asian Research which analyzes less visible issues related to Islam and Muslim societies in Asia.