November 10, 2010 / 2:42 AM / 9 years ago

Obama seeks better ties with skeptical Muslim world

JAKARTA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama held up his boyhood home of Indonesia as an example to the Muslim world in a speech on Wednesday in which he said America was not at war with Islam but acknowledged it was hard to eradicate “years of mistrust.”

President Barack Obama waves to the audience as he arrives to speak at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta November 10, 2010. Obama was given a rock star's welcome at one of Indonesia's biggest universities on Wednesday, where he charmed an audience with speech laced with local lingo and a message of reform. REUTERS/Barbara Walton/Pool

“Relations between the United States and Muslim communities have frayed over many years ... I have made it a priority to begin to repair these relations,” he told a crowd of thousands in Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

“I have made it clear that America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. Instead, all of us must defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates, who have no claim to be leaders of any religion — certainly not a great, world religion like Islam.”

Obama said Indonesia served as a powerful example as an emerging democracy working to develop its economy and a Muslim nation that is tolerant of other religions.

“Your achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another,” he said.

His speech was an update to an address he gave 17 months ago in Cairo where he declared a “new beginning” in U.S.-Muslim relations after the tensions over the September 11, 2001, attacks and Washington’s response.

But since his Cairo address, much of the goodwill Obama generated in the Muslim world has been lost. U.S. troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his promise to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center has not been fulfilled.

Muslim countries including Indonesia also say he has not done enough to rein in Israeli settlement building and act as an impartial broker to press for peace with the Palestinians.

In his Jakarta speech before departing for a G20 summit in Seoul, Obama conceded that Middle East peace remains elusive:

“There should be no illusions that peace and security will come easy. But let there be no doubt: we will spare no effort in working for the outcome that is just, and that is in the interest of all the parties involved: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”


Indonesian religious leaders and analysts welcomed Obama’s words, but said the problem was that he has yet to match his rhetoric with concrete action to address Muslim concerns.

“If there is real action to go with what he said then that’s what we wish for. But often there’s not a 100 percent correlation between what he says and what he does,” said Cholil Ridwan, head of the Ulemas Council, Indonesia’s highest Islamic authority.

“Hopefully in future he can change that and implement a different attitude. If he really believes Israel is not being helpful toward the peace process then he should stop giving them so much aid,” Cholil said. “If he can put into practice what he said in Jakarta, only then will we be satisfied.”

Obama was forced to cut short his twice-postponed visit to Indonesia by concern that an ash cloud from the deadly Mount Merapi volcano would prevent Air Force One from taking off in time to attend the G20 summit.

But his curtailed schedule still allowed time for a visit to Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in southeast Asia, and his speech at the University of Indonesia.

Obama has been greeted as a returning hero in Indonesia, where he moved with his mother in 1967, a sharp contrast after the mauling he received at home in mid-term elections on November 2, when Republicans scored big victories over his fellow Democrats.

He peppered his speech with Indonesian phrases, drawing frequent applause and cheers from the mostly young audience. But others in Indonesia and beyond were less impressed.

“Muslims will judge his actions, not his promises,” said Noor Huda Ismail, a former student of radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bahir who later renounced militancy and became a security analyst for Sekurindo Global Consulting.

In Cairo, many Egyptians were similarly skeptical.

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“It’s all speeches — in the end the same American politics, and Jewish politics, continues,” said Cairo retiree Mohamed Abdel. “This is why nothing since Obama’s Cairo speech has translated into action with Arab nations.”

Saad Zaki Khalil, 56, selling cigarette lighters in central Cairo, said: “”As soon as Obama took over, he said he would do this and that — a lot of things. But he still hasn’t met a single goal.”

Indonesia was the second stop on Obama’s four-country tour of Asia, which ends on November 15.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Alister Bull and Sunanda Creagh in Jakarta, Alexander Dziadosz and Sarah Mikhail in Cairo and Tom Heneghan in Paris; Writing by David Fox and Andrew Marshall; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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