U.S. President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Indonesia today, a country with the largest Muslim population on earth. While most people here see his visit as a sort of homecoming and take pride in the fact that Obama spent four years living and studying in the country as a child, not everyone sees the visit in such a positive light.
On Sunday, two groups of hard-line Islamic fundamentalists protested outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. A few hundred protesters from the radical groups Hizb ut-Tahrir (HPI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) shouted, “Obama comes, we crush.” They carried posters with pictures of the president and banners with slogans such as “Do not add to Indonesia’s grief,” referring to a recent spate of natural disasters that have rocked the country.
Along with the prerequisite megaphones and banners, they also had a list of 10 demands they wanted to give to the president which included the standard requests to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq and to cut all diplomatic ties with Israel.
Umum Ismael, a leader of the hard-line HPI, said, “Many people here see Obama as being more in touch with the Muslim world than previous U.S. presidents, especially Bush. But the truth is he’s not. He only knows how to seem like he is, but he speaks out of both sides of his mouth, carrying out imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while trying to pretend he’s is reaching out to Muslims in the press.”
Ismael even went so far as to say that violence against the president would be completely justified: “Yes, it (violence) would be appropriate. He is wicked man. In Indonesia we kill people who kill others, yet he has killed so many people, thousands of people. Our government is very harsh against its own people who are alleged to be terrorists. They are killed. Yet Obama, who has killed so many Muslims, is welcomed here like a hero.”
Obama has tentative plans to visit the Istiqlal mosque, the largest in southeast Asia, during his visit as a symbolic gesture to Muslims in Indonesia. While the head of the mosque, Imam Besar, disagrees with the hard-line view that Obama’s visit is negative, he was cautious when asked if the visit would be a step towards shoring up relations with the world’s Muslim populations: “I think it’s important that he come here and I hope it will lead to better relations, but, until now, most of his outreach has been in word only. There has been no real concrete action in terms of him changing the U.S. foreign policy towards Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel.” The fact that the head of the mosque most known for embracing tolerance for all faiths and people gave such a soft answer could be seen as a clear sign that Obama’s support amongst Muslim leaders is flagging.
One of the things that Obama will be shown if he does visit the Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta is a view out of a giant front window that perfectly frames a Catholic cathedral across the street. Imam Besar reads into this view, seeing it literally as concrete proof that Indonesia is a country founded on pluralism that accepts all faiths and people: “Without this belief in pluralism, the country would tear itself apart. This is the one belief we must keep alive for our survival.”
It’s also the belief that has increasingly come under attack as hard-liners gain strength in Indonesia’s rural provinces. Very little of the new money being poured into Indonesia’s economy by foreign investors is making it down to the poorest inhabitants, who largely remain left on the sidelines of the country’s economic resurgence. As a result, many are increasingly turning to fundamentalist groups for support. Evidence of this can be seen in the country’s Aceh province, where Sharia law is already in place. It can even be seen on the outskirts of Jakarta, where highly publicized attacks against Christian churches and church members have made headlines in the past months.
The hard-liners are still very much a minority, but they are growing and their stance is unwavering. Sobri Lubis, the secretary general of the FPI, bullhorn in hand outside the U.S. embassy, made his viewpoint crystal clear: “It is haram or forbidden under Islamic law to welcome the leader of ‘kafir’ or ‘infidel’ who colonizes and kills our Muslim brothers. We do not agree with the visit of Obama.”
The question is, how much longer can Obama keep his big strategic goal of mending ties with the Muslim world alive before he starts to lose their good faith in the same way he’s lost voters in the U.S.? Those who oppose him realize the magnitude of the stakes. He would do well to do the same.