Why Indonesia?

Tree planting in Borneo

Tree planting in Borneo

As an experiential high school with a focus on global awareness, we are often asked how we choose the countries we visit on our international expeditions.  This question has arisen again as we finalize plans for our trip to Indonesia next month.  Thus, it seems sensible to address it:  “Why Indonesia?”

For what it is worth, that question is often followed, explicitly or not, by another:  “Why don’t you pick out a nice safe country to visit… like Britain?”  In truth, many schools do just that, commonly signing groups of students up for preplanned, prepackaged trips to Europe.  What it really comes down to is the purpose of the trip.

Explorations student (now alum) Theo at an orphanage

Explorations student (now alum) Theo at an orphanage working with Javanese kids

At Explorations Academy, our intent is to prepare students to be global citizens.  This means helping kids gain understanding of complex ideas such as geopolitics, religious sectarianism, economic disparities, and ecological disruption.  For all the wonderful cultural amenities available in Europe, we have found that visiting less-developed countries and those less familiar to our home culture has significantly greater impact on students’ capacity to cultivate understanding of complex international issues.

It often surprises people to learn that Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world.  This island nation is also the largest Muslim-majority nation on earth.  Both those characteristics make Indonesia a very important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the world.  Of course there are other notable characteristics of this country, like a very rich array of artistic traditions, a vibrant history of Buddhism and Hinduism as well as Islam, and the troubled interface between population pressure and fragile tropical ecosystems.

Buddhist icons in a Muslim country

Buddhist icons in a Muslim-majority country

Given the political climate of late 2015, it seems worthy to focus for a moment on the role of the Islamic faith in the world and what Indonesia can tell us about cultural differences in Muslim countries.  There is a powerful minority pushing, at least in my home country of the USA, to vilify Muslims and conflate Islam with violent extremism.  I, for one hope that a saner narrative prevails, Indonesia offers such a saner narrative.  A recent New York Times article explores how moderate Muslim organizations in Indonesia — a democracy where religious plurality is a widely accepted norm — are beginning to advocate for a broader understanding of Islam.

One of these Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama, is seeking to promote religious tolerance within the faith; their leader states that “every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.”  This is clearly not the creed of a religious extremist.

And the very nature of Indonesia, as an amalgamation of hundreds of independent island cultures, is one of tolerance and diversity.  The national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”  translates as “many, yet one.”

We cannot pretend that international travel does not entail a certain risk.  However, in-depth study in and about a country like Indonesia is a powerful way to help young people gain the capacity to bring about greater understanding between cultures.  As such, our modest risk in exploring Indonesia is undertaken in the name of a rich global education that will hopefully help create the conditions for a more peaceful world.

(The photos in this post are from Explorations Academy’s 2011 Indonesia expedition.)

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