BARACK Obama lauded Indonesia’s unity between people of different faiths as as a model for Islam and the West in a keynote speech in Jakarta today.
Indonesia’s evolution from the rule of the “iron fist” had been mirrored in his own life Mr Obama said, in the 40 years since he left as a scruffy youth destined to become the president of the United States.
Mr Obama’s speech in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is seen as a follow-up to last year’s outreach to the Islamic world from Cairo, in Egypt.
Today’s speech was aimed at engaging Indonesians in their embrace of democracy since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, as well as following on the themes of religious tolerance of his Cairo address.
The president said his childhood years living in Jakarta with his late mother and Indonesian stepfather had helped shape his own understanding of the world and to respect the diversity of humanity.
“Indonesia is a part of me,” Obama said, recalling how his late mother had married an Indonesian man and brought her son to then sleepy Jakarta, where he would fly kites, run in rice paddies and catch dragonflies.
“Because Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages, and people from scores of regions and ethnic groups, my times here helped me appreciate the common humanity of all people,” he said.
“And while my stepfather, like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim, he firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect.
“In this way, he reflected the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.”
Mr Obama said he had been encouraged by Indonesia’s more recent rejection of Suharto-era authoritarianism and embrace of democracy, and said, with its new skyscrapers in now teeming Jakarta, it was now a key force in Asia.
The US President gave his speech on a twice-postponed visit to Indonesia, due to be cut short by several hours as Mr Obama sought to outrace a cloud of volcanic ash spewed out by Mount Merapi, which has severely disrupted air travel.
More than 6,000 people, mainly students, packed an auditorium in the lush tropical grounds of the national university to hear the president’s keynote address of his whirlwind 24-hour visit.
In a lighter moment, they laughed as he broke from his speech to mimic the call of street vendors selling satay – an Indonesian specialty – which he remembered from his childhood.
“If you asked me – or any of my schoolmates who knew me back then – I don’t think any of us could have anticipated that I would one day come back to Jakarta as president of the United States,” he said to loud applause.
“And few could have anticipated the remarkable story of Indonesia over these last four decades.”
Mr Obama’s speech, on the second leg of a four-nation, eight-day tour designed to cement US strategic relations and to drum up export markets in emerging Asia, also reflected on his Cairo address to the Muslim world in 2009.
Then, buoyed by a bumper election win, with the promise of huge expectations intact, Mr Obama vowed to forge a “new beginning” with Islam, following years of distrust fuelled by US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“As I said then, and will repeat now … no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust,” Mr Obama said, and vowed to do the hard work of forming common ground where suspicion and trust reigned.
He held up Indonesia as an example of tolerance to a tense age of colliding cultures, when “one whispered rumour can obscure the truth, and set off violence between communities that once lived in peace.”
“Even as this land of my youth has changed in so many ways, those things that I learned to love about Indonesia – that spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolised in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people – still lives on,” Obama said.
“Unity in diversity. This is the foundation of Indonesia’s example to the world, and this is why Indonesia will play such an important role in the 21st century.”
Mr Obama also however vowed to prosecute the war against Al-Qa’ida cells along the Pakistan-Afghan border and in failing states such as Yemen and Somalia.
“All of us must defeat Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, who have no claim to be leaders of any religion – certainly not a great, world religion like Islam,” he said.
“But those who want to build must not cede ground to terrorists who seek to destroy. This is not a task for America alone.”
Mr Obama also addressed the “enormous obstacles” that remain in place for the Middle East peace process despite the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“In the Middle East, we have faced false starts and setbacks, but we have been persistent in our pursuit of peace,” he told students at the University of Indonesia.
“Israelis and Palestinians restarted direct talks, but enormous obstacles remain. There should be no illusions that peace and security will come easy.
“But let there be no doubt: we will spare no effort in working for the outcome that is just, and that is in the interest of all the parties involved: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
Earlier Mr Obama made a much-anticipated visit to Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia.
Imam Haji Mustapha Ali Yaqub led Obama and First Lady Michelle – looking elegant in a silky flowing chartreuse pant suit and beige head covering adorned with gold beads – around the vast, domed structure in central Jakarta.
Islamic teacher Horizi Achmad Mawardi, 53, standing outside the mosque, said: “I feel so proud he’s here. Many young Indonesians consider America as an enemy but hopefully with his visit they will change their perspective.”
During bilateral talks yesterday with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the two countries sealed a “comprehensive partnership” designed to boost ties across a range of fields, including security, trade and climate change.
Security was beefed up for the visit in a country that in recent years has seen a number of deadly terror attacks, with about 8,500 security personnel, including the military, deployed in strategic locations across Jakarta.
Mr Obama now will travel on to South Korea for the G20 summit tomorrow and end his trip in Yokohama, Japan for the APEC summit.