Obama in Indonesia: Was he really listening?


BOSTON — The Javanese believe people with big ears like to listen.

And so when America elected Barack Obama, a man who spent four years living in Indonesia and has cartoonish ears, Indonesians had high hopes.

Maybe, they thought, there was finally an American leader who had not just an academic understanding of Islam, but a personal one. A president had finally arrived who could approach some of the world’s most intractable conflicts fairly, with an appreciation for the views on both sides.

The president’s speech in Cairo in 2009, in which he pledged a new beginning for relations between Islam and the West, seemed to confirm that optimism.

But two years later, many Indonesians wonder if, in fact, the president has been listening. They’ve heard him talk — twice. But there is little evidence, they say, that he’s been listening.

If he had been listening, they say, Benjamin Netanyahu would not have announced Tuesday that Israel would resume building Jewish settlements. If he had been listening, the war in Afghanistan would be over. If he had been listening, Indonesians say, the president would not be leveling sanctions against Iran for pursuing a nuclear weapons program while, at the same time, continuing to support Israel, which has numerous weapons of mass destruction.

“To me, it’s a lot of words and no action,” said Dian Teja, a student of Islamic philosophy, last year. “If Obama really wants to make change, he needs to change American policy.”

It’s a complaint heard the world over.

“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,” Saad Zaki Khalil, a Cairo resident, told Reuters on Tuesday.

In his whirlwind stopover in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest population of Muslims, the president again spoke of the need for a dialogue and an end to the mistrust that pervades the relationship between Islam and the West – but gave no indication that the United States would pursue that end in any meaningful way.

“We can choose to be defined by our differences, and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging a common ground, and commit ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress,” Obama said in his speech at the University of Indonesia today.

Yes, we can. But then what?

He said that Indonesia, a country that is both democratic and overwhelmingly Muslim, plays an important role in fostering this common ground. He invoked, in an easy line that delighted his audience, Indonesia’s national slogan, “Unity through Diversity.”

Indonesia has been vigilant in its fight against Islamic terrorists, who have repeatedly attacked the country over the past decade, most recently last July when suicide bombers walked into two upscale hotels in downtown Jakarta, killing seven people.

Indonesian security forces, cooperating with the United States and other Western powers, have relentlessly pursued members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia, arresting or killing most of its top leadership. Indonesia’s counterterrorism program is considered one of the most successful in the world.

But terrorism is not Islam and working together to stop terrorist acts does not represent progress in healing the broken relationship between Muslims around the world and the United States. For that to happen, Indonesians want to see a fair and balanced American engagement in the Middle East peace process, and an end to the killing of innocent Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Two years ago, Obama had the overwhelming support of Indonesia’s incredibly diverse, and enormous, population. Today, that support is muted. The euphoria Indonesians once felt has subsided as old problems persist and American policy toward the Muslim world remains, for the most part, unchanged.

“As President Obama promised in Cairo more than a year ago, he said he wants to create new relations between the United States and the Muslim world based on mutual understanding and respect,” Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, told the New York Times. “But many of us, including myself, are still waiting for the materialization of his promises. We maintain our skepticism because the foreign policy of the United States in Afghanistan or Palestine has not really shown any change.”

Peter Gelling is a deputy editor at GlobalPost. He reported from Indonesia between 2005 and 2010.