Obama lauds Indonesia for religious tolerance, democratic reform

While visiting his former hometown of Jakarta, Indonesia, President Obama focused his speech Wednesday on development, democracy, and religious tolerance while sprinkling his delivery with cultural references.

Barbara Walton/AP
President Obama delivered the keynote speech on Wednesday during his visit to the University of Indonesia, in Jakarta. He lauded the world's most populous Muslim nation for its religious tolerance and democratic reform.

President Obama woke early on Wednesday to a clear Jakarta sky and hundreds of onlookers straining to get a glimpse or a photo of the man some consider an adopted son. Traffic backed up for miles around him, as commuters waited for Mr. Obama to make his first stop of the day at the expansive, white-domed Istiqlal Mosque, one of Southeast Asia’s largest.

The mosque, whose name means independence, sits next to a Catholic church, a symbol of the diversity and religious pluralism Muslim-majority Indonesia seeks to promote. The country’s national motto, “unity in diversity,” is the foundation of its example to the world, said Obama, speaking before a crowd of nearly 6,500 at Jakarta’s University of Indonesia.

Rather than label Indonesia a Muslim-majority democracy, as some analysts feared, Obama focused his speech on development, democracy, and religious tolerance. And to show his connection with his former hometown, he sprinkled his delivery with cultural references.

IN PICTURES: Obama's Asia trip

He also used the speech as another opportunity build bridges with the Muslim world.

“He reminded his audience of the importance of the cultural approach in strengthening the relationship between the US and Muslim world,” says Aleksius Jemadu, a professor of international politics at Universitas Pelita Harapan. “So it’s clear there is a shift in the foreign policy of the US from security to a more personal approach.”

Only briefly did Obama draw a connection between US involvement abroad and his administration’s efforts to improve the economy at home.

“America has a stake in an Indonesia that is growing,” he said, one that is “shaping the global economy.” But more importantly, “America has a stake in the success of the Indonesian people.”

New partnership

Those stakes will play out in a newly signed comprehensive partnership that focuses on three key themes: security; economic development; and sociocultural cooperation, such as support for educational exchanges.

Obama said a US-Indonesia partnership was founded on shared values, such as freedom, tolerance, and respect for human rights, and would also include issues ranging from entrepreneurship to clean energy to science and technology.

Some of those initiatives have already gone into action. In July, visiting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the lifting of a 12-year ban on funding for the Kopassus special forces, who were accused of gross human rights abuses in the 1990s. The Peace Corps has returned to Indonesia after political turmoil drove them from the country in 1965, and Washington has promised around $165 million over the next five years to increase educational exchanges.

Many of those partnerships resulted from Obama’s call in Cairo last year for a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities.

Going deeper

Bilateral talks between Obama and his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did go deeper behind closed doors, which is where many believe tough issues, such as human rights, should remain. Other analysts say Obama had fewer deliverables to outline in Indonesian than he did in India, which is why he remained mum on economic cooperation.

The economic linchpin to the president’s trip will come in South Korea, where Obama will meet other regional leaders on the sidelines of the G20. Indonesia will be there as well, cementing its place as the only Southeast Asian nation among the world’s top economies.

Some Indonesians say speech felt artificial

Despite most Indonesians' happiness at having the US president revisit his former hometown, some analysts say Obama's personal reflection and cultural references felt artificial.

“By entertaining us, using Indonesian words, saying he’s part of Indonesia, it sweeps over the more important issues,” says Noor Huda Ismail, a former hard-line Islamist who founded and heads the Jakarta-based Institute for International Peacebuilding. “What tolerance is he talking about? Only the elite will enjoy the benefits of that tolerance.”

Mr. Huda referred specifically to the discrimination facing a minority Islamic group called the Ahmadiyah. In recent months Islamic extremists have attacked their homes and mosques, and the religious affairs minister has called on the group to disband for failing to acknowledge Muhammad as the last prophet, in keeping with the majority Muslim faith.

Obama’s brief nod to the equality achieved across a country that encompasses 17,000 islands also rang hollow for some.

“People say the situation is good for us in Papua, but it’s not,” says Markus Haluk, head of a group pushing for autonomy in Papua, a resource-rich province on the far eastern reaches of Indonesia. “We have no freedom, no liberty, genocide is a fact of life for us.”

IN PICTURES: Obama's Asia trip

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