11.07.10

Obama's Awkward Indonesia Trip

As Barack Obama prepares to travel to Indonesia, where he spent much of his childhood, Muslims have staged rallies across the country to protest against his visit. Organized by Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir, they drew around 20,000 people. "We don't see the differences between Obama and Bush, they both oppress Muslims, they both have blood on their hands," said a spokesman for the group. As Sahil Mahtani and Kenneth Weisbrode report, Indonesians regard the president with mixed feelings, despite the time he spent there as a boy.

President Obama is in Jakarta after three postponed visits to Indonesia, which might mean a lukewarm welcome from the locals. From 1967 to 1971, Obama lived in the Menteng-Dalam neighborhood of Jakarta with his mother and Indonesian stepfather.

But as Sahil Mahtani and Kenneth Weisbrode report, Indonesians regard the president with mixed feelings, despite the time he spent there as a boy.

Defying a cloud of volcano ash, President Obama is in Indonesia part of his Asia trip.

But although he spent his formative years living here, his visit to the most populous Muslim country in the world won’t be seen as the heroic return of a prodigal son.

Unlike Kenyans, who embraced Obama after his election, people in Indonesia are ambivalent about the president, whom they regard as an outsider, not deserving even of a simple statue in the capital, Jakarta. This is not a celebrated homecoming; rather, Indonesia feels the way a far-flung imperial province might have felt before the visit of a Roman emperor.

Speaking at one of the world’s largest mosques, the president will no doubt try to resurrect his presidential stature, bruised by the recent midterm elections. But he may find the crowd less adoring than he would like.

Earlier this year, a statue of a young Obama was moved from a park in Jakarta to a less prominent spot at the school he attended as a boy, after some Indonesians took to Facebook to argue that the American president didn’t deserve the tribute, and that an Indonesian should have gotten the honor instead.

In Indonesia, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, Obama’s approval rating has been waning since his election two years ago, and there are reports that Obama may face demonstrations in Jakarta this coming week

The fact that he has twice delayed his trip to the country hasn’t helped his popularity there. Even a prominent Obama impersonator in Indonesia complains that business has slowed.

In his public speech in Jakarta, Obama will have to strike a delicate rhetorical balance, addressing concerns that America is becoming more anti-Muslim without further alienating those at home who regard his beliefs with suspicion. In part because of the years he spent in Indonesia as a child, Obama has battled unfounded accusations that he is really not a Christian but a Muslim.

Obama’s trip to Indonesia is important for geostrategic reasons. The U.S. administration is hoping to counterbalance Chinese power by making stronger allies of countries such as Vietnam, India and Indonesia.

But Indonesia, like most of its Asian neighbors, does not easily fit the stereotype of a piece on a strategic chessboard. In fact, political culture in Java is extremely Obama-esque. It prefers nonconfrontation, and calmness and softness of voice are valued when dealing with adversity. Doing otherwise is seen as kasar, a crude transgression.

Although he spent his formative years living here, his visit to the most populous Muslim country in the world won’t be seen as the heroic return of a prodigal son.

Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, part of an imperial crescent centered on India and Burma. In Britain and elsewhere, people knew what the East Indies were, and knew of events there. By contrast, today Indonesia has been pushed to the periphery of world affairs and barely registers as a country of importance in the U.S. or in Europe, despite its significant size and wealth of natural resources.

Obama would do right to address any fears of irrelevance, which he—inadvertently—helped stoke by postponing his trip twice. Although Indonesian officials did not complain publicly about the delays, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono canceled a meeting in New York in September with Obama and Southeast Asian leaders, blaming previous commitments

Years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about Indonesia in a letter to John F. Kennedy:

“I did pick up one useful bit of information yesterday,” Galbraith wrote. “An Indian told me that when they recently played a game of ordinary or non-touch football with the Indonesians in Djakarta, the latter got a medicine man to the stadium early in the morning to insure by incantation and other well-established techniques that the citizen-supporters of your friend Soekarno would win. I asked if it worked. My Indian friend replied, ‘Of course not. We had the better team and anyhow our astrologer had picked the day.’”

But as Obama prepares to visit Indonesia, he might do well to remember something else that Galbraith once wrote:

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

Sahil Mahtani is a writer in Jakarta.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute in Florence.