Barack Hussein Obama, the mixed-race president born in Hawaii, partly educated in Indonesia — defender of a controversial Islamic center near ground zero in Manhattan — is tentatively scheduled to visit Jakarta’s Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Mercifully, the American elections are over.
The timing lets Obama pursue U.S. foreign policy without overworry that the mosque visit will reignite the fruitcake claims that Obama is really a foreigner and a Muslim. (Obama is Christian, not that being Muslim should matter.)
Such concerns endure, however. Fear of feeding homefront ignorance prompted Obama to steer clear of a visit to the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh shrine in India. Sikhs are not Muslims. In fact, they often have bloody conflicts with Muslims. But all male visitors to the temple must wear a traditional headdress. The president’s handlers obviously don’t want a photo of Obama in a turban.
Before Paul Wolfowitz became an architect of the war in Iraq, he was ambassador to Indonesia. Wolfowitz sees the visit as a potentially good occasion for burnishing America’s image in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population — assuming Obama doesn’t go off on one of his apology jags, as he did in the Cairo speech last year.
“There’s no question that Obama will be well received,” Wolfowitz told me. “They obviously like the fact that he has lived there. That’s a big deal. They like the fact that he represents American tolerance and diversity, which they admire.”
Although Indonesia’s leaders have failed to adequately crack down on Muslim terrorists who attack churches, the country is not mired in religious extremism, according to Wolfowitz. Indonesia recognizes six religions. The nearly 250 million people in this country — three times the size of Texas — belong to 300 ethnic groups. The national motto is “Unity in Diversity.”
Unlike most Asian countries, Indonesia extols youth, and that also works in Obama’s favor. “They have enormous nostalgia for the Kennedys,” Wolfowitz said.
From 1967 to 1971, Obama lived in the Menteng neighborhood of Jakarta with his Indonesian stepfather, his mother and his half-sister. Indonesians call him “Anak Menteng,” which means “Menteng Boy.”
Working against Obama is continuing unhappiness over the war in Afghanistan, which much of the public sees as a war against Muslims. Indonesians are also troubled by the plummet in Obama’s fortunes back home.
Wolfowitz’s concern — shared by some of Obama’s friends — is that the president might again wax apologetic about America or its values. During his much criticized Cairo speech calling for “a new beginning” between America and the Islamic world, Obama noted several times that women may wear the hijab (Islamic head covering) in America without defending their right to not wear it in many Muslim countries.
Because of Obama’s youth and multicultural background, he should be able to bond with these mostly Muslim audiences while recognizing certain realities. “When he speaks out in defense of religious freedom and against burning churches,” Wolfowitz said, “people won’t hear that as some right-wing evangelical thing.”
Some Indonesian students are already protesting Obama’s scheduled visit for the usual anti- American reasons. And recent natural disasters, volcanic eruptions and another tsunami, are bound to dampen Indonesians’ enthusiasm. But Obama’s reception should be generally positive. There’s no better place in the Muslim world for him to visit.
And wouldn’t a grownup conversation between the Indonesian people and the American president who once lived among them be a good thing for U.S. foreign policy? Now that the United States is off campaign mode, however briefly, Obama is free to be both friendly and frank. Let’s hope it comes off as planned.
©2010 The Providence Journal Co.