Soft Power: Wali Songo Diplomacy, Six Centuries Ahead of Its Time

(JG Graphics/Josep Tri Ronggo)

(JG Graphics/Josep Tri Ronggo)

Often we as Indonesians search for examples of greatness to emulate from the outside world but fail to realize that some of the best models to follow exist from within our very own confines. One of those examples is the Wali Songo, or The Exalted Nine.

The Wali Songo were the nine Muslim missionaries instrumental in the peaceful spreading of Islam in Indonesia, and their teachings have been entrenched in the country for the past 600 years.

The Wali Songo also contributed in economics, agriculture and culture and arts. But one area of their expertise that has rarely been mentioned — if ever — is diplomacy. They were master diplomats in every sense of the word, specializing in “soft power” techniques.

In 1990, Joseph Nye, a professor from Harvard University, coined the term “soft power” to depict a means to achieving political aims by influencing a person or group through attraction leading to the subject’s desire of the same outcome. Conversely, hard power functions via coercion, financial incentives and even military force.

Soft power has become one of the many buzzwords of international relations in the post-Cold War era and has been heavily discussed and implemented in many foreign policies worldwide, including Indonesia’s. The main aim is inducing others to do what you want and doing it with content.

So how did these nine honorable men from a time so displaced from ours utilize “soft power,” an art considered by many experts as a novel concept?

Sunan Kudus (Ja’far Shadiq), one of the Exalted Nine, pondered how he could persuade the village residents who were predominantly Hindu to accept his Islamic teachings. One day he placed a cow outside of the town mosque. The townsfolk were fascinated due to the holy status of cows in their religion and were naturally touched by the gesture. When the gathering was sizeable enough, Sunan Kudus began his sermon using the Koranic verse Al- Baqarah, meaning “The Cow.” This was just the beginning of Sunan Kudus’s religious diplomacy as more people came to the mosque afterward and Islam grew exponentially in the town of Kudus.

According to soft power principles, attraction leads to acquiescence, which will then lead to admiration and aspiration to follow. Such a strategy was employed by all of the Wali Songo.

Another aspect of soft power is the influence through culture and music, exemplified by the South Koreans’ Hallyu diplomacy in promoting their movies and music all over the globe. Similarly this was the technique used by Sunan Bonang (Makdum Ibrahim) when the traditional Javanese gamelan musical instrument was played to win the hearts of his future followers. Sunan Gresik (Malik Ibrahim) employed the wayang puppet show to captivate his audience and was able to convert his ever-growing spectators to Islam.

Rather than denying local cultures, the Wali Songo adapted; instead of attacking they embraced. South Korean President Park Geun-hye once said that “in the 21st century, culture is power”; Sunan Bonang and Sunan Gresik would argue that this was also the case in 15th-century East Java.

Furthermore, an additional facet of soft power is derived from the promotion of language. For instance, the Chinese Foreign Ministry collaborated with the Ministry of Education in establishing language learning centers throughout the world to enhance their foreign policies. Confucian institutes were initiated in 2004 and have had a positive effect for the Chinese government in gaining favorable relations with the international community after their political transition from communism.

Like China’s current emphasis of worldwide linguistics, Sunan Ampel (Raden Rahmat) presented the Arab Pegon letters in his effort to spread the religion of Islam in Indonesia. Pegon calligraphy uses Arabic letters for Indonesian words and its introduction was a method to gradually familiarize the populace with Arabic writing to facilitate the learning of the Koran. It was also influential in preserving literature for future generations. Pegon letters were widespread and entered different parts of the country (Java, Aceh and Riau) revealing its significance for the growth of Islam here.

In their pacifist religious campaigns, the Wali Songo effectively created a lasting legacy in Indonesia. It has resulted in a country known for its moderate views of Islam characterized by a high tolerance of other faiths and cultures.

It needs to be mentioned that the Wali Songo were not the first pioneers of Islam in Indonesia as there was an effort in the eighth century. However, it did not have an enduring effect due to its focus on the dogmatic aspects of the Islamic faith rather than the appeasing universal approach taken by the Wali Songo seven centuries later. These nine noblemen were successful in penetrating the most profound depths of human emotion to preserve their valuable teachings for subsequent generations.

Diplomacy is an art of skillful persuasion, not abrasive condemnation.

Interestingly, last month our president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, commendably laid out a strategy to fight against the influence of ISIS, the radical religious group in Syria and Iraq. Due to its threat to Pancasila, the nation’s philosophical foundation, Yudhoyono advised that the way to combat the extremist Islamic group was not by military force but instead it was the duty of religious scholars, social leaders and diplomats to use Nye’s soft power and smart power diplomacy to find a lasting solution.

Perhaps it is most fitting to apply “Wali Songo Diplomacy.”

Rizvi Shihab is a professional in the oil and gas sector and a researcher at the Bina Bangsa Foundation.

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Posted on October 13, 2014 .