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Indonesians Look Toward Obama Speech With Hope

  • Solenn Honorine

President Barack Obama is preparing to give a speech in Cairo addressing the world's Muslims. Expectations for the speech are high in Indonesia, a predominately Muslim country where Barack Obama spent part of his childhood.

Indonesia sees Mr. Obama's election as a chance to raise its international profile: the U.S. president has ties to the archipelago, having lived here for three years as a child with his mother and stepfather.

Improved relations

During the past decade, ties with Washington have warmed significantly, after years of coolness when strongman President Suharto governed Indonesia. During a recent visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Indonesia's recent achievements: creating a stable democracy that manages to record economic growth despite the global financial crisis.

Because of this record, Ir Zuhai, rector of Al-Azhar University in Jakarta, had hoped a few months ago that President Obama would give his address to the Muslim community at the school.

"In the sense that they do not visit Indonesia first, we are of course rather disappointed," said Zuhai. "We are unique. We are a multicultural community, but we do not have a culture of violence. Indonesia is unique because it is the largest democratic [state] based on Islamic values. That is to dismiss the prototype thinking that Islam is not compatible with democracy. It is compatible."

Instead, Mr. Obama will give his speech Thursday in Cairo, after visiting Saudi Arabia.

Youth interest

It is prayer time, and the students from the Al-Azhar University are getting ready to worship. It is an illustration of Indonesia's relaxed version of Islam. Roughly half of the girls here do not wear the Muslim headscarf, and the dress code here is inspired mostly by U.S television.

Reva Fardani, a 19-year-old economics student, says he is interested in Mr. Obama's speech, because even though he has a very good impression of the U.S. president, he still needs proof that Mr. Obama's open hand policy toward Islam is genuine.

Fairness important

It is an opinion shared by Komarrudin Hidayat, rector of Jakarta State Islamic University.

"America should prove to the world that they are egalitarian and democratic. When American society is reluctant to accept the others, actually they destroy their own foundations when they are promoting democracy to the world," said Hidayat.

Indonesia is not immune to the militancy that has risen in some countries. It has been victim of home-grown terrorism, but managed to uproot it by arresting and prosecuting those responsible. Even though the majority of Indonesians are moderate Muslims, there is an increasingly vocal hard-line minority that is gaining more political sway.

Will speech ease anger?

The president of the Moderate Muslim Society, Zuhairi Misrawi, hopes Mr. Obama's speech will help ease the anger that fuels militancy, particularly over Palestine.

"Actually, I do not care about the Palestine issue, but the radical groups they do pay attention to the Palestine issue," said Misrawi. "If the Obama administration doesn't give a good solution for Palestine, I think the radical groups will still rise in the future because they make the issue of Palestine as the raison d'être of their movement."

Although Indonesia is far from the Middle East, the issue of a Palestinian state is important to Muslims here. Many Indonesians have great hope that Mr. Obama will be able to help resolve the issue.