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Obama's Latest Muslim Outreach Effort Fails To Echo Beyond The Land Of His Childhood

  • Robert Tait

U.S. President Barack Obama waves goodbye after delivering a speech at the University of Jakarta, Indonesia

U.S. President Barack Obama waves goodbye after delivering a speech at the University of Jakarta, Indonesia

His predecessor's robust defense of waterboarding as an interrogation tool for Muslim terrorist suspects was hardly the kindest segue into President Barack Obama's latest effort to persuade the Islamic world that the United States is friend rather than foe.

Neither was Israel's announcement of plans to build more than 2,000 homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, seen as sacrosanct territories by Palestinians in their quest for their own state.

But when Obama addressed Indonesian students at the University of Jakarta on November 10, it was on his own sentiments and record -- rather than those of George W. Bush or Binyamin Netanyahu -- that he was inviting judgment.

As the president acknowledged, he had vowed to repair the United States' badly torn relations with a distrusting Muslim world by promising a "new start" in a keynote speech in Cairo in June 2009. Revisiting the issue in Jakarta, Obama implicitly conceded that things hadn't quite measured up "17 months" after the speech, allowing that "we have much more work to do."

"Innocent civilians in America and Indonesia and across the world are still targeted by violent extremists. I have made it clear that America is not and never will be at war with Islam." Obama noted.

Instead, he reiterated that all governments, not just the United States, must work to defeat Al-Qaeda and affiliate terrorist organizations that "have no claim to be leaders of any religion, certainly not a great world religion like Islam."

Rebuilding Frayed Ties

Still seeking rapprochement, Obama tried another tack -- democracy. Where the Cairo address had tried to woo Muslims with a long homage of respect for the Koran and Islamic culture, this time the president stressed the faith's co-existence with diverse traditions and economic development in a country where he had spent four years as a child.

"Indonesia is steeped in spirituality, a place where people worship God in many different ways. Along with this rich diversity, it is also home to the world's largest Muslim population, a truth I came to know as a boy when I heard the call to prayer across Jakarta," Obama said.

Though, Obama noted that his priority as president was to repair relations between the United States and Muslim communities that "have frayed over many years."

While framed in the context of Indonesia, the comments carried wider resonance to Obama's message of promoting a more tolerant, less sectarian interpretation of Islam, according to Maha Azzam, a specialist in political Islam and an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

"I think that was an important point and one which he homed into, particularly in the case of Indonesia, because they have this motto that they have unity and diversity and he was obviously very aware of this and it is very much a potent motto in terms of Indonesian identity in terms of keeping the nation together," Azzam says.

According to Azzam, "it also plays into the whole idea that Muslims should be tolerant of others and Islam can live in harmony with other religions and other ethnicities. So it served an important purpose in terms of the overall message of President Obama, whether here in Indonesia or elsewhere, of a tolerant Islam."

Cairo II?

Some Obama aides pre-billed the speech as "Cairo II," in which he would expand on the themes of last year's address.

In the event, it was a much more modest effort, with Indonesia and concepts such as democracy, freedom, and development meriting far more mentions than religious terms. Obama even went out of his way to describe himself as Christian, a tactic possibly devised to counteract persistent rumors -- believed, according to one poll, by 18 percent of Americans -- that he is a Muslim.

Azzam believes the speech's localized Indonesian context may limit its impact. Yet even a less grandiose effort than that delivered in Cairo is likely to generate some positive response, she says.

"Obama's willingness to show respect to Islam generally as a religion, to pay lip service to its contribution, its greatness, its tolerance, and so on is an important message that resonates well," Azzam says. "I think the specific aspect of Islam in Indonesia has a strong hearing in Indonesia itself. To what extent it will resonate beyond Indonesia is questionable.

But she says that Obama's "message about Islam, about democracy, about Islam's greatness is something that will appeal to many throughout the Muslim world."

However, Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, says Obama's emphasis on democracy may fall flat among Muslims in the Middle East because it jars with their everyday reality.

"He didn't really broaden the Indonesian experience to say something larger about the lack of democracy in the Middle East," Hamid says. "What really struck me was the cognitive dissonance between his Jakarta speech and the reality of Obama's policies in the Middle East."

Hamid points out that this is especially the case following recent elections in Bahrain and Jordan, "which were very disappointing in many ways" and Egypt's elections on November 28. "This is sort of an odd time to be emphasizing democracy in Jakarta but not seeming to emphasize it in the Arab world."

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in September 2010.
Postelection Promises

Compared to Cairo, the Jakarta speech has had very little traction in the Arab world, Hamid says, having had little advance publicity and also because Obama's immediate postelection glow has dimmed.

"I think the Jakarta speech comes in a context where Arabs are very much disappointed and disillusioned with Obama and they have moved on," Hamid says. "There isn't the same kind of hope and expectation that there was last year during the Cairo speech where many Arabs were legitimately impressed and excited and really thought that Obama's election would bring forth a new period in U.S.-Arab relations. So I think the time has passed, the honeymoon passed a long, long time ago and it's too little too late."

With the detention center at Guantanamo Bay still open despite earlier promises to shut it, U.S. troops spearheading a NATO surge in Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict apparently no closer to resolution, the end of the Obama's Muslim honeymoon is perhaps no surprise.

Furthermore, any credit claimed for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq is offset by the country's continuing political instability and a recent upsurge in intercommunal violence.

Yet while it may be impossible to recreate the post-Cairo euphoria, the president's communication efforts are unlikely to be in vain.

According to Azzam, "every time President Obama makes these sympathetic comments about Islam, but more importantly I think his emphasis on issues such as democracy, whether he is pointing a finger at a particular country or speaking in generalities, which he tends to do, I think that's where he finds the greatest appeal across the Muslim world."

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