Barack Obama reaches out to Islam

BARACK Obama has delivered a personal appeal to the Muslim world to join the West in the battle against their common enemy – al-Qa’ida and affiliated militants.

Returning after 39 years to Jakarta where he spent four years of boyhood, the US President reiterated his Cairo message to the world’s Muslims: “America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. Instead, 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 delivered his speech in front of 6000 people, mostly students, at the University of Indonesia’s Depok campus, south of the city.

Declaring that “Indonesia is part of me”, Mr Obama challenged the nation to take a G20 leadership role by “embracing transparency and accountability” and held it up as the model for tolerant, democratic majority-Muslim nations.

Mr Obama said that in the 17 months since he had undertaken in Cairo to begin repairing frayed relations between the US and the Islamic world, “we have made some progress but much work remains to be done”.

The President cited the withdrawal of almost 100,000 US troops from Iraq; Afghan government capacity-building by coalition forces; and commitment to a permanent Middle East solution of Israel and Palestine side by side in peace.

To dramatise his message of Indonesian tolerance, Mr Obama and wife Michelle walked shoeless through the great courtyard of Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia and designed, he noted, by a Christian architect.

“And while my stepfather, like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim, he firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect,” Mr Obama said.

“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 . . . 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’s mother, Ann Dunham, married Lolo Soetoro, who was a student in Hawaii in 1966 as former president Suharto took power in Indonesia, his regime ordering overseas students home.

The six-year-old went with his mother to Jakarta in 1967 and lived there for four years.

The President’s ringing endorsement yesterday of Indonesian pluralism and tolerance appeared to be directed at the widespread suspicion in the US of Islam in any form.

In Indonesia, Muslim moderates and religious minorities feel intimidated by the aggressive forms of fundamentalism, characterised by mob attacks on Christian congregations and the heterodox Muslim sect, Ahmadiyah.

The President’s message was welcomed, however, by mainstream religious leaders.

Masdar Masudi, leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim mass organisation, said: “It was very important that President Obama talked about strengthening religious tolerance and (protecting) ethnic and racial differences. In Indonesia we have ‘unity in diversity’ (as the national ideal) but it has been disturbed because of certain political, social, and economic developments.”

After signing a comprehensive partnership agreement with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday, Mr Obama said the US wanted a “partnership of equals” with the world’s fourth-most populous nation.

“America has a stake in an Indonesia that plays its rightful role in shaping the global economy (through the G20) so that emerging economies like Indonesia have a greater and bear greater responsibility,” Mr Obama said.

“And through its leadership of the G20’s anti-corruption group, Indonesia should lead on the world stage by example in embracing transparency and accountability.”

Transparency International’s 2010 “corruption perception index” ranked Indonesia at 110 out of 176 countries.

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