PHOTOS: Indonesia At A Crossroads : Parallels Indonesia's founding philosophy includes the notions of unity and social justice for all. But there are growing concerns that the country is becoming less tolerant than it once was.
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PHOTOS: Indonesia At A Crossroads

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PHOTOS: Indonesia At A Crossroads

PHOTOS: Indonesia At A Crossroads

PHOTOS: Indonesia At A Crossroads

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/560812912/560920915" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A busy sidewalk in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Indonesia's founding philosophy includes the notions of unity and social justice for all. But there are growing concerns that the country is becoming less tolerant than it once was. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

As home to 250 million people speaking hundreds of languages and spanning some 17,000 islands in an area as wide as the continental U.S., Indonesia is one of the most populous and diverse countries in the world.

Top: People worship at noon prayers at Jakarta's Istiqlal mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Left: A crowded Jakarta commuter line train. Right: Women walk through Istiqlal mosque. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Top: People worship at noon prayers at Jakarta's Istiqlal mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Left: A crowded Jakarta commuter line train. Right: Women walk through Istiqlal mosque.

Claire Harbage/NPR

The country is about 88 percent Muslim, and it is also home to Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians. It's a place that prides itself on diversity and sees it as a source of strength. "We cannot afford not to have this diversity," says Budi Bowoleksono, Indonesia's ambassador to the United States.

Top left: Band members practice twirling flags at Istiqlal mosque. Top right: People visit St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral across the street from the mosque. Bottom right: People light incense at the 17th century Vihara Dharma Bhakti Buddhist temple in a mostly Chinese neighborhood in Jakarta. Bottom left: A Hindu shrine on a Bali beach. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The country's founding philosophy, "Pancasila," includes the notions of unity and social justice for all. Religion, politics and culture hold the country together — but there are growing concerns that the country is becoming less tolerant than it used to be.

The former governor of Jakarta, a Christian, was recently imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. Schools funded by Saudi Arabia are disseminating a stricter version of Islam than the country has previously embraced. Meanwhile, some minority sects are under attack.

People leave the Istiqlal mosque after prayers. Istiqlal is the national mosque of Indonesia and was built in the 1970s to commemorate the country's independence. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Which way will Indonesia go? In traveling across the country, its diversity and complexity, its paradoxes and tensions are all apparent.

"We are diversity and harmony"

The world's largest Buddhist temple complex, on the Indonesian island of Java, dates to the eighth century. Millions of tourists visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Borobudur every year — most of them Indonesian.

The Borobudur temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating to the eighth and ninth centuries, is located in central Java. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Leo Prasetio, 23, works as a tour guide at the site. "I am a Muslim, a happy one," he says. "Actually, we are diversity and harmony now. In this city, yes."

But "the truth," Prasetio says, "is not in all of Indonesia is like this city."

Lights from a fashion show at a hotel that sits at the base of the temple illuminate Borobudur. The Buddhist temple was restored with help from UNESCO. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

"Only Islam can give justice"

In the capital, Jakarta, a Saudi-funded university called LIPIA teaches Arabic and Salafism, an ultraconservative form of Islam. Men and women sit in separate classrooms, and female students Skype into the men's classroom for their lessons. Saudi Arabia is trying to open four more LIPIA campuses in other Indonesian cities.

At the Saudi-funded LIPIA university, female students Skype into men's classrooms for lessons because men and women are not permitted to sit together. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Sidqi Addayyan, a 27-year-old LIPIA student, is studying to become a religious teacher and hopes someday Indonesia will become an Islamic country on the Saudi model.

"I believe that only Islam can give justice, because in my opinion, if we let another ideology dominate Islam, there will be injustice," he says.

Sidqi Addayyan, 27, has been studying Shariah at LIPIA for seven years. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The school has "a very strong connection directly to the Saudi government," says Sidney Jones, who runs the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and has studied extremism in Indonesia for 40 years. "The fact is, however, that some of Indonesia's most progressive Muslims have also studied Arabic at LIPIA. So it isn't just a hotbed of Salafist Islam, though it is a very important institution for spreading Salafism."

The front of the Hizb ut-Tahrir headquarters in Jakarta has a blacked-out sign. The Islamic organization favors a global caliphate and was banned in July by the government, which deemed it a threat to national unity. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Jones notes there is now "a much greater attention to Islamic practices that Indonesian Muslims didn't necessarily adhere to in the late 1970s and early '80s." But, she says, "people confuse a tendency toward greater piety with evidence of radicalism."

Top: Boutique owners and sisters Sansa (left) and Senaz (center) examine swatches of material and designs shown by Benedicta Citro (right), an Italian designer and Swarovski representative. Left: Senaz examines a colorful design brought by Citro. Right: Senaz says she and her siblings follow in their mother's footsteps as fashion designers. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

"They love the bling"

Brightly colored hijabs line the walls of Si.Se.Sa., an upscale fashion boutique in Jakarta. It's named for the three sisters who own the shop — Siriz, Senaz and Sansa, all in their 30s. They specialize in modest syar'i or "Shariah compliant" fashion and say they follow in the footsteps of their mother, also a designer.

Swarovski crystals are featured in many of the store's designs.

"In Southeast Asia," says Benedicta Citro, an Italian designer and Swarovski's representative, "they love the bling."

Jakarta's Si.Se.Sa. boutique sells hijabs that are brightly colored and decorated with crystals and pleating. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

"In every country, they have their own identity, their own DNA," Citro says. "So, for instance, in Indonesia, they're very colorful. They are very conservative in terms of cut, but lots of bright colors."

Top: Wahjudi Djaja walks toward the Kejawen cemetery in Yogyakarta to pray. Left: A chandelier hangs at the Kejawen cemetery. Right: Flowers are an important part of prayer rituals in Kejawen, a traditional Javanese religion. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Top: Wahjudi Djaja walks toward the Kejawen cemetery in Yogyakarta to pray. Left: A chandelier hangs at the Kejawen cemetery. Right: Flowers are an important part of prayer rituals in Kejawen, a traditional Javanese religion.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Minority beliefs under threat

In a dimly lit crypt in Yogyakarta, Wahjudi Djaja kneels in front of a tomb and sprinkles flowers on the grave as he whispers a prayer. He practices a Javanese religion called Kejawen, also known as Kebatinan, whose rituals involve amulets and a figure known as the Queen of the South Sea.

Wahjudi Djaja calls himself an ambassador of Kejawen religion. Standing in front of an old banyan tree, he says many spirits live in the tree. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

A day before, Djaja says, his fellow worshippers were conducting a ritual in the local river when a group of hard-line Muslims showed up and tried to block them. That kind of confrontation is increasingly common, he says, and it worries him.

Left: Hastono Wasiyo, 60, is a gravedigger and caretaker at the Kejawen cemetery. Right: Mas Bekel Hastono Darwinto, 61, is the main caretaker of the Kejawen graveyard. Both men clean and maintain the area. In the afternoon, they sit just outside the cemetery in a wooden shed, sharing pieces of cassava. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The road ahead

"Indonesia has given me the understanding of how to contain multitudes," says Maya Soetero-Ng, President Obama's half-sister. She was born in Indonesia and was raised there until age 14. "But it has also given me, by virtue of its worst bits, an understanding of how we have to confront the worst in human nature."

U.S. Ambassador Joseph R. Donovan says every democracy needs "careful nourishing" and cultivation of shared values. "And it also requires a healthy dose of courage as well," he says, "to stand up to say we support moderation, we support the rights of minorities. Everywhere these are being challenged, and Indonesia is not an exception there."

Jakarta at night Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR
Correction Oct. 31, 2017

A previous photo caption misidentified a Jakarta commuter line train as a TransJakarta bus.