Fine Words, Obama, But…

President Obama’s inspiring speech at the University of Indonesia this week lifted the mood of tens of millions of people across the country at a time when the national psyche is depressed over never-ending natural disasters that have claimed many lives, the latest a tsunami and the continuing eruptions of Mt Merapi.

Obama praised Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy and said the country was an inspiration to the world in how its people of many religions and ethnicities lived together in peace.

“Even as this land of my youth has changed in so many ways, those things that I learned to love about Indonesia – that spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolised in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people – still lives on,” Obama said.

The reality is far different, however. Hardline Islamic groups are on the rise. They are beating back Christians and even offshoots of their own. Churches are being burned, priests bashed and congregations told they cannot worship. These are not isolated incidents but a growing assault by fundamentalists such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

As Obama was talking unity and lauding the country, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was doing little about ensuring that the constitution of Indonesia – which recognises five main religions, not just Islam – was upheld. Elsewhere in Java, enraged Muslims were attempting to pull down a statue of the Buddha they did not like; and previously an effigy depicting women was relocated – to Bali, purchased by Governor Pastika – because it offended some Islamic-minded people.

The FPI, infamous for trashing bars and nightclubs in Jakarta because it deems them depraved, is now emboldened. It has the support, at least tacitly, of officials including the country’s newly installed police chief, Timur Pradopo. He has said this vigilante group can be useful for ensuring public security, a regrettable statement from the head of a force whose job it is to ensure security and maintain the public peace.

Yudhoyono, whose government relies on Islamic parties to stay in power, will not even consider the position of a renegade member of his cabinet. Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring felt he had to apologise, on Twitter, after he was photographed shaking the hand of the American first lady in a welcome line-up at the State Palace as the Obamas arrived. The minister, a conservative Muslim who has previously blamed the country’s natural disasters on a lack of morality and ridiculed AIDS sufferers, believes he should only shake the hands of women he is related to. He sought to blame Michelle Obama for reaching out to “touch” his hands “but Mrs Michelle held her hands too far toward me, so we touched.” Video posted on YouTube proves his account is fanciful, however, because it shows the minister himself reaching out to shake Mrs Obama’s hands. Was he fearful his (normal) action might upset his Muslim followers? Where is the unity and tolerance that President Obama was speaking of?

“Unity in diversity. This is the foundation of Indonesia’s example to the world, and this is why Indonesia will play such an important role in the 21st century,” Obama said.

We hope so.

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