Indonesia’s soft power diplomacy in R20, promoting Indonesian Islam to the world

G20 is an annual forum that was originally a meeting to respond to the financial crises which occurred in 1998 and 2008. The formation of G20 initially emerged from expansion in the membership of G8 – eight countries that became the most significant actors in facing the financial crisis (to mention a few: France, Germany, UK, and United States), to become the G20 with the entrance of countries with emerging economies; such as China, India, and Brazil, and also an intergovernmental organization: European Union. The forum, which was originally aimed at dealing with economic issues, has grown to be more comprehensive and multidimensional.

As the role of G20 and its presidency rotation develops, G20 forums are then divided into two tracks: financial track that is attended by the Ministers of Finance and the Central Bank Governors of each member state to coordinate on financial issues; and sherpa track, which discusses non-financial issues. The activities in the sherpa track agendas are determined and set primarily by the country holding the presidency. A country with potential modalities, Indonesia has a significant position in playing its role in this multilateral forum.

Multicultural society as Indonesian modality

Indonesia has valuable resources in particular that other countries rarely have. To be specific: Indonesia is a respected multicultural country. Many view Indonesia as a unique state that unites vastly diverse elements – e.g. ethnicity, religion, to race; and be a unified nation. Erratically, the multiculturalism still maintain boldly despite Islam being the majority of believers. Indonesia has a civilization able to maintain harmony in the midst of diversity. This modality is perceived as reference for serious problems faced by other parts of the world, particularly the Islamic world.

For instance, Indonesia has the Ministry of Religion Affairs (Kementerian Agama) as the overseer of units representing the interests of each official religion. Regarding the social context, culture of tolerance is habituated and quite rooted in the society, in spite of facing differences in identities. To cite an instance, in the context of education, Islamic educational institutions are directed and coordinated to familiarize themselves with the bahtsul masail – a learning model that allows Muslims in Indonesia to interpret fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, according to the local context.

Religious traditions in Indonesia, especially Islam, have been studied continually. Clifford Geertz, for instance, introduced his work The Religion of Java which classified the trichotomy of Javanese society at that time: santri (born from the social substructure of the market), priyayi (government), and abangan (village). After the era of Indonesia’s Reformation, according to Masykuri Abdillah, there are three groups of Muslims based on their ideology: some who seek formal application of sharia (structural approach), some approach sharia in the ethical-moral realm only (cultural approach), and some who look up a balanced orientation between Islam and nationality.

Indonesia is well-known for its position as the largest Muslim country in population. Although Indonesia includes different variants of Islam, these conditions cannot be separated from entity of Indonesia itself. Bambang Pranowo, an Indonesian muslim scholar, even exhibits an analogy Indonesian Islam to kue lapis (layer cake) in which consisting of several colorful layers. The parts of the cake don’t have to be the same, and in fact, any part with any color is still the part of that particular cake.

Furthermore, Indonesian Islamic identity does have quite complex and unique attributes. In terms of uniqueness, Indonesian Islam could be characterized to several elements: Islamic character of wasatiyah (moderation), openness, also accomodating local wisdom. One of the latest Islamic discourses in Indonesia is the Nusantara Islam – firstly initiated by the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia: Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). In short, the terminology seeks to reformulate and mainstream the moderate Islamic understanding.

This also reflected in the history of a formed Indonesia in the early days of independence. Indonesia is neither a theocratic or secular state. Nonetheless, built upon the agreement between the nationalists and Islamists, Indonesia became a distinctive religious country; whereas the conceptual framework of state legislation is normally based on religious norms.

Religion Forum (R20) International Summit of Religious Leaders is one of NU’s initiatives as a series of G20 agendas. NU aims that the forum can be a medium for prominent religious leaders to express their voices and concerns; thus forming shared moral and spiritual values. As aforementioned, NU has a unique view on the context of Indonesian Islam – Islam Nusantara, which was firstly released back in 2015. It aims to protect the concept of nation statehood and promote moderate Islamic values. Previously, NU had also held similar programs several times to promote religion as a peacemaking contributor.

Indonesian experiences and R20 as a soft power diplomacy

Indonesia’s skilled diplomacy is a well-known role, exceptionally those related to religious terms and issues. It includes various implementations, including the interreligious dialogue which were carried out during the Rohingya case in Myanmar in accelerating the domestic development of religious harmony. Indonesia has made efforts to establish bilateral and multilateral relations that focus on interfaith dialogues, such as the Asia-European Meeting (ASEM) Interfaith Dialogue. Regarding government cooperation with NU, Indonesia had held the International Conference of Islamic Scholars (ICIS); discussing Islamophobia, conflicts in Muslim countries, and so forth.

Practices of diplomacy can not only be carried out by the government, but by organizations which are then classified as one of non-state actors, namely non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The development of diplomatic capabilities from state to non-state occurs in line with the expanding dimensions of issues in international relations. The R20 activity itself has been directly supported by the Indonesian government, in particular the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The diplomatic process carried out by NGOs tends to be easier in setting public’s attention and opinion due to its close stance to the grassroots than political elites.

Religion is an important issue in global politics. Religious affairs themselves are referred to as intermestic (international and domestic) policy issues. It is also deemed as influencing international relations in the same way as other value systems and ideologies; affecting the behavior of state and non-state actors.

In particular, soft power diplomacy is the ability to influence others by relying on the power of cooperation instead of violence or military power. Soft power is also defined as an indirect or intangible influence; such as culture, values, and ideology. Public diplomacy, as part of soft power, is a vital tool to promote a country’s soft power. Thus, religious issues can be recognized as a form of soft power; creating a new term of religious diplomacy. This understanding is also in line with NU’s concept that religion, on one hand, oftentimes can cause conflicts, but on the other hand has the significant potential to be a force that builds and maintains peace.

According to the R20 committee release, more than 200 distinguished religious leaders and politicians from Indonesia and abroad will attend the forum. The issues raised in R20 focused on placing religion as a solution rather than a problem through raising internal problems in religion, interreligious relations, and seeking shared solutions to humanitarian problems.

Several topics that will be discussed, to mention a few: the process of reconciliation over historical grievances, identification of shared values ​​held by major world religions and civilizations, recontextualization of problematic understandings in religions, up to the values development in guaranteeing world peace. Furthermore, the General Chairman of the NU Central Board, Yahya Cholil Staquf, stated that R20 was indeed designed in such a way that religious leaders honestly convey the problems faced by each religion.

Introducing Indonesian Islam to the world in building peace

Briefly, public diplomacy is an emphasis on efforts to solve problems by seeking common interests and conveyed through messages of peace. Whereas high politics focus on government-centered issues, R20 activities can be viewed from a diplomatic perspective which is more grounded. The impact generated by public diplomacy will be more felt in the community due to its orientation which focuses on the formation of public opinion.

The idea can be seen from the supports that provided by numerous institutions in successing the event; both from the government (Ministry of Religion Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs), to domestic and international religious organizations (such as Muhammadiyah – also a large Indonesian Muslim organizations, and the World Muslim League). In addition, the organized activities are also correlated with the concept of public diplomacy. The international conference, as planned by NU as one of R20 activities, is a form of public diplomacy. In case there are parties who disagree in the forum, it actually aims to produce an agreement that hopes to reduce conflicts and disputes in the future.

There are three paradigms related to the changes to achieve through interreligious dialogue: theological, political, and peace building. Based on the characteristics and the topics to be presented, R20 categorized as an interfaith dialogue oriented to peace building. There are at least four goals through this paradigm: changing attitudes and perspectives of others, growing respect and understanding, expanding participation in activities, and building a framework for cooperation in taking action against the roots of conflict.

Jalaluddin Rizqi Mulia
Jalaluddin Rizqi Mulia
Undergraduate Student at Department of International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia