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US Tsunami Aid Boosts American Image in Indonesia

Indonesia, the nation with the world's largest Muslim population, is by tradition a moderate Islamic country with a secular government that has grown increasingly anxious with the foreign policy of the United States, most notably in Iraq, Israel, and Afghanistan.

Workers unload aid supplies at Lolofitu Moi district, central Nias island, Indonesia
Indonesians have warmed up a bit to the United States in 2005. This after Washington sent in a military humanitarian mission and millions of dollars in aid money to Indonesia's Aceh Province, hit by the devastating December 26 tsunami that left more than 160,000 people dead in the country.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" in Washington, shows a 25-point jump that can be traced to the U.S. tsunami response.

The poll, conducted in the United States and 15 other countries among 17,000 people between April 20 and May 30, says in 2003, Indonesians who viewed America positively numbered just 13 percent. But after the tsunami relief efforts that figure jumped to 38 percent.

But these numbers also show distrust of the United States runs deep among the majority of Indonesians.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has taken a tough stand against terrorism at home and abroad, summed it up Tuesday when he told an audience of Islamic clerics that Muslims are resorting to violence because of "injustice and oppression" they face around the world.

The United States has been traditionally blamed for this in the Arab world because of its support of Israel. More recently, a broader segment of Muslims are concerned that the U.S.-led war on terror is focusing exclusively on Islamic nations,- such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the issue may be more complex than just U.S. foreign policy issues. Ulil Abshar Abdalla, with the independent policy center in Jakarta, the Liberal Islam Network, says for the militant vocal minority of Muslims, dislike toward the United States goes much deeper.

"For some Muslims, the world which is under the dominion of the hegemony of America must be destroyed at all costs. This is, for some Muslims, this is about good and evil. America for them is symbolizing, it's representing the evil forces while Islam, as represented by those people, represents the good world," he said.

Mr. Ulil says America needs to improve its message and educate the Islamic world, but it faces an uphill battle. It needs Muslim leaders to do their part by discouraging twisted religious beliefs and militancy.

"Education in our world, the Muslim world, breeds a lot of fanatics. I'm not talking about every madrassa, but some madrassas, Islamic educational system, have been breeding ground of fanaticism and obscure understanding of Islam…I think this fanaticism must be uprooted and that starts with education," he said.

Here in Indonesia, Muslim views of the United States are more complex and perhaps varied than in the Middle East. While many Indonesians distrust U.S. foreign policy, political analyst Kusnanto Angorro from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, says the majority of Indonesians love American culture.

"Unlike in the Middle East where anti-Americanism is not only on the level of foreign policy of the United States but also some cultural aspects of the Americans, in Indonesia's case it's somewhat different. So I guess many people here adore the culture of the Americans, including food, movies, and education systems," he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta has actively tried to counter negative perceptions of America through cultural exchanges and aid, especially in tsunami-devastated Aceh.

Mr. Ulil, from the Islamic Liberal Network, says this is not enough. "For some people, this small gesture to land aid to Aceh people who suffer from tsunami, it just [is] for them … a drop in the water. Of course it helps but this drop of water, of course, will certainly be undone by other American policy on Iraq and Palestine," he said.

But the problem of extremist Muslim anger at the United States is no longer just a problem for Washington, it has become a problem for Jakarta and Indonesians who have suffered anti-Western terrorist bombings here at home. The worst of them, the 2002 attack by the Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah on a Bali tourist nightclub, killed 202 people, many of them Indonesians.

This has spawned a new anti-terrorism partnership between the governments in Jakarta and Washington and hope that through greater cooperation, Indonesians will be more open to the U.S. public diplomacy message that the United State is not anti-Islam.