ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Maya Soetoro-Ng bridges the United States and the country of her birth.
MAYA SOETORO-NG: I was born in Indonesia. And our mother raised me there more or less until the age of 14.
SHAPIRO: You say our mother. This is you and President Barack Obama.
SOETORO-NG: That's correct.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: Thank you to the people of Indonesia. (Speaking Indonesian).
SHAPIRO: That means, I've come back home. I recently visited Indonesia to look at how religion, politics and culture hold the country together and sometimes pull it apart. We'll explore these issues all this week. Aside from the fact that the former U.S. president spent a few years of his childhood there, Indonesia does not often pop up on most Americans' radar.
SOETORO-NG: I'm not exactly sure why Indonesia has such a low profile in the United States. Indonesians like to say it's because although they study in the United States, they miss the food too much and head back home afterwards.
SHAPIRO: In a way, it's strange that Americans don't often hear about Indonesia because it has the fourth-largest population of any country in the world, and it's one of the most diverse countries on Earth. People speak hundreds of languages spread across thousands of islands. Indonesia has more Muslims than the entire Middle East combined.
We're exploring Indonesia's diversity in our stories this week, looking at the struggle between majority rule and minority rights, threads of growing intolerance and political campaigns that value identity over policy, some of the same issues the U.S. is working through. So today - a few small snapshots, vignettes that give a sense of this country's scope and its challenges.
It's a little before 5 in the morning. The sky is just getting pale.
First - the largest Buddhist temple in the world on the island of Java. Borobudur dates back to the 8th century. Visitors wake up at 4 a.m. to climb to the top of this stone tower and watch the sunlight flood the surrounding hills. Leo Prasetio is a 23-year-old tour guide. I stop him to talk when his group of tourists from India wanders off to take selfies.
Are you Buddhist?
LEO PRASETIO: No. I am a Muslim - a happy one.
SHAPIRO: As a Muslim giving tours of this Buddhist temple...
SHAPIRO: ...How do you think about the intersection of religions?
PRASETIO: Actually, we are diversity and harmony now in this city, yes.
SHAPIRO: Diversity and harmony, he says. Indonesia's founding principle is called Pancasila. It includes the idea that different people should co-exist even if they worship in different ways.
WAHJUDI DJAJA: (Praying in foreign language).
SHAPIRO: Another snapshot a few hours' drive from the Buddhist temple - in a dimly lit crypt, a man named Wahjudi Djaja performs a ritual unique to his brand of Islam.
Wahjudi is quietly saying the prayer under his breath as he sits cross-legged in front of the tomb.
He sprinkles flowers on the grave. This is a local form of Islam called Kejawen. The rituals involve amulets and a Goddess known as the Queen of the South Sea. Over lunch, Djaja tells me that he fears Indonesia is becoming more intolerant. The previous day, his community was conducting a ritual in the river when hardline Muslims showed up and challenged them.
How often are their confrontations between Kejawen people and fundamentalists?
DJAJA: (Through interpreter) In six months, it's happened six - under seven times. It's never happened often like this year.
SHAPIRO: Why do you think this is happening now?
DJAJA: (Through interpreter) There is a politicization first. It's about political things.
SHAPIRO: This is a big question right now in Indonesia. Is the country becoming less tolerant than it used to be? And if so, why? Indonesia's capital city, Jakarta, is the second-largest metropolitan area in the world. For decades, Saudi Arabia has funded a university here called LIPIA. It teaches a more fundamentalist form of Islam. Men and women sit in separate classrooms. Female students Skype into the men's classroom for their lessons. A journalist named Krithika Varagur meets me across the street from the campus. She's done some reporting on the school.
If I were going through the course catalog here, what would be on offer?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: I mean, I think the tent pole of the curriculum is teaching Arabic language. They also study Islamic law and theology of course, which is the mandatory subject.
SHAPIRO: What does Saudi Arabia get out of this?
VARAGUR: If you can think of it in the way that American foreign policy is based on spreading democracy and spreading freedom, the Saudi foreign policy involves spreading its own values across the world.
SHAPIRO: The school wouldn't let us interview any faculty, but I met a student named Sidqi Addayyan getting noodles at a food cart across the street.
Would you like to see Indonesia become a Muslim country in the way that Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country?
SIDQI ADDAYYAN: (Through interpreter) Yes. I hope Indonesia will become an Islamic country because I believe that only Islam can give justice. If we let another ideology dominate Islam, there will be injustice.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like you are saying someone must rule over the others; there is no place for everyone to live on the same level.
ADDAYYAN: (Through interpreter) Yeah. In my opinion, people outside Islam only support their own race or religion.
SHAPIRO: Saudi Arabia is trying to open four more campuses of this school in other big Indonesian cities. Some people fear that as a threat. Others say it's just one more square in Indonesia's patchwork quilt. And a country can become more religious without becoming more radical.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And then the (unintelligible) - so this is the brightest.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, nice.
SHAPIRO: Final snapshot - an upscale boutique in Jakarta called Si.Se.Sa. Brightly colored outfits line the walls, conservative clothing for religious Muslim women who love fashion. Their designs cover the hair and the arms and legs down to wrists and ankles. The patterns include traditional Indonesian batik, embroidered flowers and layers of ruffles. Benedicta Citro is meeting with the owners. She's an Italian designer for Swarovski, the company that makes crystals, representing the Southeast Asia market.
BENEDICTA CITRO: In the Southeast Asia, they love crystals. They love the bling. So it's a great moment for us (laughter).
SHAPIRO: How does the Indonesian fashion in conservative clothing differ from other countries?
CITRO: Every country - they have their own identity, their own DNA. So for instance, in Indonesia, they're very colorful. They are quite conservative in the terms of cut...
SHAPIRO: But lots of bright colors.
CITRO: ...But lots of bright colors.
SHAPIRO: This shop is owned by three sisters, Siriz, Senaz and Sansa, hence the name of the store, Si.Se.Sa. The youngest sister, Senaz, wears a long hijab that's pleated in the back.
SENAZ: And I have a denim dress with a orange zipper.
SHAPIRO: Bright orange zippers down - it feels a little, like, 1980s-style.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Yeah.
SENAZ: That's right. This is more, like, younger and casual.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Casual collection from Si.Se.Sa., but it's also a hit.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Obviously any one description of Indonesia will fall short. When I asked President Obama's half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng to describe her memories of the country, she unfolded a long, lyrical story about childhood foods, dances, sounds and smells.
SOETORO-NG: It was a really kind of sweet, robust time of community and culture. And it felt safe.
SHAPIRO: And then she segued into a description of anti-Chinese riots when she was 9 years old, a scene that taught her about human capacity to do harm.
SOETORO-NG: Indonesia has given me the understanding of how to contain multitudes. 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.
SHAPIRO: Those tensions and paradoxes will be the focus of our stories all this week. Tomorrow - the story of a political campaign that has some uncanny parallels with the US.