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Indonesia Awaits Action from Obama

June 10, 2009

Indonesian Muslims looked forward with great anticipation to the long-awaited “speech to the Muslim world” by a president they consider at least partially their own. With the possible exception of Obama’s inauguration, the Indonesian public has not, in recent history, ever so eagerly anticipated a speech by a U.S. president.

More than one national television station aired the speech live in its entirety, and featured expert panels in the studios to discuss it before and after. Around Jakarta, there were many “speech viewing” gatherings – mini-seminars where experts provided commentary and analysis.

Reaction from the Indonesian Muslim public was generally positive, although – like everything else in Indonesia – the response tended to vary widely between the general public (more positive)  and elites (more negative), and among the various elite commentators.

In general, though, even Islamist commentators found the speech itself to be hopeful, sincere, and an accurate identification of the issues and challenges that need to be confronted. There was a general appreciation of the focus on education, on pluralism and tolerance, on positive views of Islam – all themes that are familiar to an Indonesian audience. There was an appreciation for the new tone and position on Israel and Palestine. Many Indonesian Muslims pointed out a dramatic difference between Obama’s stance on, and understanding of, Islam from his predecessor.

A widespread reaction, however, was, “the speech is great, but let’s see if any action follows.” The degree of skepticism ranged widely, but the skepticism was largely focused on the huge challenges Obama faces domestically with a strong pro-Israel lobby, and with the degree of hostility still felt by most of the Muslim world. So a strong “wait and see” attitude prevailed. Some Indonesian leaders grudgingly gave Obama a thumbs-up on the speech, but a deadline of three months for some concrete change to take place.

Some Muslim leaders, however, saw a role for Indonesia in helping to realize the goals laid out in Obama’s speech. They pointed to the positive relationship that Indonesia has with both the U.S. and Middle East states, and argued that they could be part of the bridge between the two. Others pointed out that differentiating between “speech” and “action” was unhelpful, and that a speech by a world leader is a kind of action; further, that the action that needs to happen is not only on the part of the U.S. president or public, but also is on the part of the Muslim world itself.

So, overall, the Indonesian response was not the euphoric swooning that followed Obama’s election and inauguration speech, but it was a measured, hopeful, yet cautious “wait and see.”

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at rbush@tafindo.org.

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