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Obama heralds Indonesia's political, religious diversity in latest outreach to Muslims

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:02 AM

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Speaking before thousands in the city that helped raise him, President Obama on Wednesday cited this country's transition from dictatorship to democracy as a model in an Islamic world often governed by unelected autocracies.

He also praised Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation - for a "spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people," a quality worthy for all the world to emulate.

Obama received a warm welcome from the crowd of about 6,500 at the University of Indonesia, particularly when he spoke in Indonesian, as when he recalled buying satay and bakso from street vendors or referenced the national motto, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," or "Unity in Diversity."

"We are two nations which have traveled different paths. Yet our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag," Obama said.

The speech was cast by White House officials as part of the president's continuing outreach to Muslims, an effort he began last year in Cairo by calling for a "new beginning" between the United States and Islam.

But Muslim views of Obama around the world have worsened in several countries since then, and in the United States, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that nearly one in five Americans thinks the president is a Muslim, in part because of the time he spent here as a child. Obama describes himself as a practicing Christian.

The president's efforts to mend relations with the Islamic world were partly overshadowed by the reopening Tuesday of a rupture between the United States and Israel, a development that reflected his administration's struggle to strike a balance that satisfies either side in the Middle East conflict.

Obama criticized Israel for undermining two-month-old peace talks with new plans to build on land that Palestinians claim as their future capital. At a news conference Tuesday evening, he said of the Israeli government's project to construct 1,300 apartments in East Jerusalem,"This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations."

Israelis and Palestinians both claim rights to Jerusalem, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded to Obama by asserting in a statement that "Jerusalem isn't a settlement - Jerusalem is the capital of Israel."

Israel's construction in the occupied eastern part of the city, seized by the Israeli army in the 1967 Middle East war, has infuriated Palestinians, who view the work as a slow erosion of their future state.

Obama and his advisers have, at times, sought to play down his upbringing in Indonesia, but he embraced it on Wednesday during his brief visit.

"Let me begin with a simple statement," he told the audience, which included students, civil activists and others. "Indonesia is a part of me."

The crowd responded enthusiastically when Obama spoke of his days living in Jakarta. He recalled hearing, as a boy, the call to prayer stretch out across Jakarta, where, he told the audience, he lived in a small house with a mango tree in the yard.

He also noted that the speech followed his visit to the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, which was under construction when he lived here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The audience then listened quietly, applauding politely on occasion, as Obama moved to the substance of his remarks - which drew from Indonesia's economy, democracy and religion.

"Just as individuals are not defined solely by their faith, Indonesia is defined by more than its Muslim population," he said, noting the country's success in holding democratic elections since the fall in 1998 of the dictator Suharto. "But we also know that relations between the United States and Muslim communities have frayed over many years."

The president concluded by departing from his prepared remarks to deliver a couple of sentences in Indonesian, thanking the crowd, before finishing with the traditional Muslim phrase "Salaam alaikum," or "Peace be upon you."

Obama arrived Tuesday in Indonesia for a short stay - made shorter by the erupting Mount Merapi volcano - that mixed diplomacy with an economically important Muslim nation and nostalgia as he returned to a place where he spent four years of his childhood.

Speaking at the news conference alongside Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Obama said it is "disorienting" to return to the city as president. Jakarta's single tall building when he was a grade-schooler - the Serena - is now, he said, among the shortest in the bristling urban skyline he viewed from his motorcade window.

Using Indonesian terms, he recounted memories of streets filled with bicycle rickshaws and stand-up-in-back taxis, noting that now that he is president, "they block off all the streets" for him, so he did not see any this time. His reminiscences drew a smile from his Indonesian counterpart and knowing chuckles from members of the Indonesian media.

Asked by an American reporter to assess the success of his Muslim outreach, Obama said that "our efforts have been earnest, sustained."

"We don't expect that we're going to completely eliminate some of the misunderstandings and mistrust that have developed over a long period of time," he said. "But we do think that we're on the right path."

Some of the partnership agreements he announced Tuesday with Yudhoyono - promoting student exchange programs, climate-change initiatives, economic cooperation - are part of that outreach. He said those programs seek to expand U.S. ties to Muslim nations, including Indonesia, beyond their shared security interests.

"It's an incomplete project," he said. "We have a lot more work to do."

The ash plume from Merapi, whose eruption has killed more than 150 Indonesians, caused Obama to cut short by almost two hours a visit he twice postponed because of domestic political considerations. He had planned to be here for 24 hours before traveling to Seoul on Wednesday, where he will attend the Group of 20 economic summit.

Obama's tour of four Asian democracies is, in large part, a mission to court rising middle-class markets that he hopes will help him meet his goal of doubling U.S. exports in the next five years.

As American consumers recover from the credit crisis, Obama wants Asian consumers to pick up the slack in propelling U.S. economic growth. He has taken a far more active role in regional Asian economic forums, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Japan later this week, to promote those interests.

In his Wednesday speech, Obama delivered a tacit critique of China's economic model, saying, "Particularly in times of change and economic uncertainty, some will say that it is easier to take a shortcut to development by trading away the rights of human beings for the power of the state.

"But that is not what I saw on my trip to India, and that is not what I see in Indonesia," he said. "Your achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another."

Obama has identified Indonesia, whose economy is projected to grow 6.2 percent next year, as a country where U.S. exports should be higher. But the more populous China holds the most economic potential.

At the G-20 summit, he will enlist help from Indonesia and other nations to pressure China to allow its currency to appreciate. Doing so would make U.S. exports more affordable inside China, but could also take a toll on Chinese manufacturing jobs.

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