Obama's Indonesia speech bridges a divide

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, November 12, 2010;

Barack Obama this week gave one of the most powerful and convincing speeches of his presidency, rising above the morass of policy minutiae to connect with people's emotions.

Too bad he gave the speech in Indonesia.

Obama spoke on religious and ethnic tolerance in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country. Coincidentally, the speech was delivered a week after the normally sensible residents of Oklahoma gratuitously attacked Muslims by voting to ban sharia, or Muslim religious law. They did so even though no one in this country was trying to introduce it and no Oklahoma court is known to have cited it.

A federal judge this week issued a restraining order temporarily blocking the measure, but it comes on top of an ugly campaign season of baiting Muslims and immigrants, of tension-stoking by some Fox News commentators and of a sense of insecurity in the land - about terrorism, about lost jobs and about what many Americans see as threats to our culture.

In Jakarta, Obama dropped the cool, professorial tone that has marked his presidential talks. While he usually argues well analytically, he has often failed to appeal to our better spirits, whether for the health of our citizens or the health of our economy. Obama recognized as much in his post-mortems of why the Democrats crashed in the midterms.

But perhaps he felt liberated by returning to the land where once he was just a boy named Barry. He soared with inspiration, delivering a message designed for the Muslim world but as applicable to our own:

"Across an archipelago that contains some of God's most beautiful creations, islands rising above an ocean named for peace, people choose to worship God as they please. Islam flourishes, but so do other faiths. Development is strengthened by an emerging democracy. . . . Here we can find the ability to bridge divides of race and region and religion - by the ability to see yourself in other people."

Obama lived in Indonesia from age 6 to 10, and he was unusually personal in recalling a happy childhood of flying kites, catching dragonflies, running along paddy fields and learning of "the humanity of all."

"Let me begin with a simple statement," he told a university audience. He then spoke in Indonesian: "Indonesia is a part of me," and by not hiding his background, gave no ground to the nativists and others who say they believe he is Muslim or foreign-born. Obama celebrated who he is and, by extension, who we are - a potpourri of cultures and backgrounds.

Islam is troubled by fanaticism in its ranks. So, too, are Judaism and Christianity, though on smaller scales of violence. But Obama's speech, perhaps unintentionally, picked up on a nobility of American toleration that has been lost since the early gestures toward Muslims that President George W. Bush made soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.

By praising Indonesia for its big role in rooting out terrorists and for such little things as a church and a mosque sharing a parking lot, he reminded us that the overwhelming number of Muslims are nonviolent and welcoming. More Muslims need to be outspoken against terrorism. Yet more already are, even if many Americans don't realize this, and not just in non-Arab Indonesia but also in Pakistan, Palestine and throughout the Muslim world.

Speeches like Obama's empower these moderates. Actions like the Oklahoma law empower the crazies into believing that there really is a war between religions.

To our credit, the United States is more open toward Muslims than is much of Europe today. Switzerland has banned minarets, France and Belgium are roiled with debates over banning the veil, German government leaders are declaring multiculturalism a failure, and extreme anti-immigration parties have expanded in countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden.

But the Oklahoma measure is right up there as an irresponsible provocation. Foreign and international law have never been binding in state or federal courts, but the measure amends the state Constitution anyway to forbid Oklahoma courts from considering "international law or sharia law." It makes no mention of similar Christian, Jewish or other religious laws. Surely it will be permanently struck down as unconstitutional.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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