A peacemaking role for Indonesia in the Saudi-Iran conflict: The Jakarta Post

Protesters in Teheran chanting slogans during a demonstration against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia.
Protesters in Teheran chanting slogans during a demonstration against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on Jan 8, The Jakarta Post urges Indonesia to muster all its diplomatic skill and experience to help bring peace in the Middle East.

Tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been rapidly escalating and expanding this week, possibly endangering peace and stability, not just in the Middle East or the Muslim world but also beyond.

A number of other Muslim-majority countries have now joined in the efforts to isolate Iran, also severing ties with Teheran in a show of solidarity with Saudi Arabia.

Tragically, it is increasingly looking like an ideological battle within the Muslim world, between Sunnis, as represented by Saudi Arabia, and Shiites, represented by Iran.

The real battle, however, is not so much ideological as it is a geopolitical contestation for power and influence in the region.

The conflict is an extension of the ongoing war in Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Iran back rival sides.

Where does this leave Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world?

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has rightly proclaimed Indonesia's neutrality, even though the majority of Indonesian Muslims are Sunnis.

Jokowi has called on both sides to show restraint and appealed for international efforts to stop the situation from deteriorating.

His appeal is important not only for the international community to hear, but also for the Indonesian people.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi disclosed on Thursday that Indonesia had held intensive dialogues, not just with Riyadh and Teheran but also with more than 10 other countries since the start of the New Year to try to find ways of bringing about a peaceful resolution.

In her annual press statement on Thursday, Retno said, "Indonesia is a good friend of Saudi Arabia and Iran."

Inevitably there are pressures on the government, whether internal or external, to side with one party or the other.

Indonesia should not succumb to these pressures lest it lose whatever power it has to influence the course of events in the Middle East.

How much power and influence Indonesia has, or whether Saudi Arabia and Iran would listen, is not important.

But it is important for Indonesia to be seen trying to work for peace. Indonesia needs to muster all its diplomatic skill and experience now to help bring peace.

Indonesia comes not without credentials as a peacemaker. It is the largest democracy in the Muslim world, and at a time of rising religious fundamentalism and extremism, Indonesia continues to promote a moderate and tolerant brand of Islam at home and abroad. 

Indonesia is also responsible for various regional and international initiatives to promote interfaith dialogues. 

In addition, Indonesia has a track record of peace building, in Cambodia, southern Philippines and southern Thailand.

Granted, Indonesia's tiny Shiite community has faced harassment from radical groups, but that is all the more reason for the government to work for peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

A full scale war in the Middle East would have a devastating impact on Indonesia, including the religious lives of its people. For what it's worth, Indonesia should give it a try.