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Obama hails religious tolerance in key Indonesia speech

Almost 40 years after he left Indonesia, US President Barack Obama wrapped up his trip to the world’s most populous Muslim nation Wednesday with a major speech praising Indonesia’s religious tolerance.


Returning to the country where he spent a part of his childhood, US President Barack Obama hailed Indonesia’s commitment to religious tolerance, democracy and economic development in a key speech at Jakarta’s University of Indonesia on Wednesday.

In an address peppered with Indonesian phrases, including the national motto and a lively imitation of the call of Jakarta street vendors - which drew a rapturous response from his mostly young audience - Obama held up the world’s most populous Muslim nation as an example to the world.

His speech; which lasted around 30 minutes, featured frequent references to Indonesia’s national philosophy of unity between people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

"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," he said.

Returning to Cairo speech themes, neglecting others

Obama’s speech, which was billed as a message to the Muslim world, came 17 months after his celebrated June 2009 Cairo address when he laid out his vision for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”

In his address to a crowd of around 6,500 people - mainly students - at the University of Indonesia on Wednesday, Obama returned to some of the themes of his Cairo speech, including the role of democracy and development.

As he did in Cairo, Obama addressed some of the key international issues confronting the US and the Muslim world, including the Middle East peace process and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Admitting the “enormous obstacles” in the “pursuit of peace” in the Middle East, Obama reiterated Washington’s commitment to a two-state solution.

"Let there be no doubt: we will spare no effort in working for the outcome that is just, and that is in the interest of all the parties involved: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," he said to a thunderous ovation.

Unlike his sweeping Cairo speech though, Obama made no mention of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nor of his administration’s commitment to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, nor of his opposition to Western countries trying to ban the Islamic veil.

Much has changed over the past 17 months, including a drubbing Obama’s party received in last week’s midterm elections as well as a sudden, alarming rise in Islamophobia in the US, which saw Americans split over the building of an Islamic centre near New York’s Ground Zero site and a thwarted attempt by an obscure US pastor to publicly burn the Koran.

On Afghanistan, Obama reiterated his administration’s commitment to cooperating with the Afghan government to bring peace to the war-torn nation.

‘Very much what Indonesians wanted to hear’

But it was his frequent references to his boyhood years in Indonesia and his family’s long-standing ties to the Southeast Asian nation that drew the most enthusiastic response from the crowd.

"Selamat Datang," Obama proclaimed with a smile, using the traditional Indonesian greeting. He also repeatedly hailed Indonesia’s national motto of "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," which means "unity in diversity".

Reporting from Jakarta, Belford Aubrey, GRN correspondent for FRANCE 24, said Obama’s speech had left a deep mark on the Indonesian people.

“This is very much what Indonesians wanted to hear, particularly the praise that President Obama gave for Indonesia’s democratic progress and its rise in status as an economic power,” said Aubrey.

Wednesday’s speech came at the end of the second leg of Obama’s Asian tour. His trip to Indonesia was cut short due to the threat of volcanic ash from Indonesia’s Mount Merapi, which has disrupted air travel.

Shortly after his address at the University of Indonesia, Obama left for South Korea, where he is attending the G20 summit.

Ever since his election, Obama has been widely popular in Indonesia, but the enthusiasm had somewhat dampened over the past two years as a cramped domestic agenda compelled the US president to cancel two earlier visits.

But there was no sign of any lingering disappointment as Obama warmly hailed “the land of my youth”.

Earlier on Wednesday, Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Jakarta’s Istiqlal mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia.

In his final speech in the city of his youth, Obama drew a parallel between Indonesia and the US. "Our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag," he said. "And we are now building on that shared humanity.”


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