The publication of any book on Indonesia is to be applauded; though it probably won’t sell, it’s sorely needed. After China, India and the United States, Indonesia has the largest population of any country in the world. It also has the greatest territorial spread after the Russian Federation and the USA (including Hawaii). It covers four time zones, includes about 14,000 islands (three of them bigger than Britain) and yet generates less book-reading interest than Belgium. A friend who had holidayed in Bali, one of the smaller but more central islands, flew home without realising he’d ever been to Indonesia. ‘Ah, but are you sure Indonesia’s actually a country?’ he protested. Might it not be a geographer’s convenience, like Polynesia or Melanesia, an agglomeration of atolls lumped together in an oceanic void? And this in defiance of what is surely the most distinctive of profiles. For Indonesia is unique, an equatorial extravagance of volcanoes and vegetation that hosts the only truly archipelagic nation and provides a sensory experience so heady that a few bars of gamelan music, the flutter of a shadow puppet or the whiff of a clove-impregnated cigarette can send the ex-visitor into a swoon.
Indonesia is also home to the world’s largest concentration of Muslims – over 200 million. Islamic spokesmen elsewhere in Asia don’t always mention this; for though the statistics are not suspect, the credentials of Indonesian Islam are. In the outlying islands a strictish orthodoxy prevails. Throughout much of