11.09.10

Obama Finds His Footing

In Indonesia, our stilted professor was replaced with a man at ease who charmed his audience by speaking the local language. Tunku Varadarajan only wishes this could have been Obama's first major speech to the Muslim world—and that his visit weren’t so short.

It’s a colossal shame that presidential life has no magic rewind button, for if it did—and we could whirr ourselves back to June 2009—we’d have had Barack Hussein Obama skip Pharaonic old Cairo, city of the ghastly Hosni Mubarak and a tightly coiled hatred of the West, and deliver his first major speech to a Muslim nation in Indonesia...

...which is where, on Tuesday night, he delivered his second major speech to a Muslim audience, a speech that was sure-footed, unpretentious, sweetly personal (Obama lived in Jakarta when he was a boy), and actually very constructive. It was the speech of a man at home: Gone was the formalized stiltedness of the president before the Indian parliament, as seen only 24 hours ago; and absent entirely was the longwinded, professorial president of our own domestic experience. Instead, we had a man at ease with the air of the archipelago—I loved the way he invoked the names of Java, Aceh, Bali, Papua—and secure in the adulation of a hospitable audience eager to embrace him as one of their own.

Why, oh why, did he not come here in June ’09, forgoing the sterility of the Arab world for the tolerant, syncretic Islam of Indonesia? Whoever advised him then should be shot, or fed to crocodiles; for it is in places like Indonesia, where Islam is worn lightly, where Islam is not a bludgeon deployed against the rest of the world, that Obama’s repeated references to Islam as a “great world religion” seem plausible. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, as the president pointed out to his Jakarta audience—an audience that can scarcely have been unaware of the fact, and yet one that resides in a country constantly aware of its second-class status in the Arab-centric Muslim world. Not only that: Indonesia also has the world’s largest population of tolerant, cosmopolitan Muslims, Muslims we can partner with, relate to, and, frankly, not be frightened of.

Reza Aslan: Why Obama Can Be Proud of IndonesiaIndonesia, as the president also recognized, is a democracy—a democracy of Muslims, as opposed to an Islamic democracy. As such, it is not a place where he will have felt at all awkward extolling the virtues of “open markets, a free press, a justice system, an open society, and active citizens,” as he did Tuesday night. Can you imagine him calling out such things so freely in Egypt, or in any other Muslim country bar Turkey, where it is still possible—just—to identify these features?

Obama was barely in Indonesia for half a day, but his visit there appears to have been as heartwarming to the locals as it was maddeningly fleeting. Judging by the gusher of words in the local Bahasa language at the end of his speech, Obama has deep personal rapport—still—with Indonesia. One wishes that he had stayed longer, and showcased Indonesia to greater effect, introducing the country and its tolerant Muslim ways to America at greater length. Islam is not of the Arab world alone. In truth, our best Muslim allies in the long run will come from places like Indonesia. Which is why Obama’s salutations to Islam—which had grated so harshly in suffocating, Sunni Cairo— sounded so congenial in Indonesia, a country whose president, Sushilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a Muslim who doesn’t even have a Muslim name.

Why, oh why, did he not come here in June ’09, forgoing the sterility of the Arab world for the tolerant, syncretic Islam of Indonesia?

Go back to Indonesia soon, President Obama. The people there get you, and like you. What’s more, they get us, and like us. (What’s “win-win” in Bahasa?)

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)