By Aaron L. Connelly
President Obama’s address at the University of Indonesia was enthusiastically received by the crowd of nearly 7,000 there. Friends in the audience told me the feeling was reminiscent of a rock concert rather than a political speech. The speech was simulcast across Indonesian networks, and many Indonesians watched at home, using Twitter to describe the way the speech boosted their pride in their country in a way no speech by a politician ever had– and to note the irony that the speech had come from the mouth of a foreign leader, not one of their own.
But twelve hours removed from the speech at the University of Indonesia, the reaction from the mainstream American commentariat appears to be mixed. FP’s Joshua Keating wrote that “The speech was an update of the address he have 17 months ago in Cairo in which he promised a ‘new beginning’ in U.S. Muslim relations,” and then links to the New York Times write-up explaining that many Indonesian Islamic leaders were unimpressed with its content regarding the Middle East. The New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons, coming off an appearance on Al-Jazeera talking about the speech, said morosely in a message, “Obama’s Jakarta speech important but could never be Cairo.”
All of which would be fair criticism, if the speech had been intended as “Cairo II”– but it was not. (Nor, as far as I can tell, was it even billed as Cairo II by anyone on President Obama’s staff.) Rather, this was a speech to Indonesia. Those listening to speech would have noted that “religion” was one of only three topics he addressed in the substantive portion of his remarks. He spent only a quarter of his time on the topic, coming to it only at the end.
Nor should the President have given a Cairo II in Jakarta– because Cairo is not in Indonesia. Though Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, it is not a center of the Islamic world. Its national leadership has often declined to take a leadership role in the Islamic world, and has regularly refused earlier American suggestions that it trumpet the coexistence of Indonesian Islam and Indonesian democracy in its conversations with Middle Eastern countries. President Obama understood this sensitivity and addressed it carefully in his speech.
Instead, President Obama spent a good deal of time also talking about his memories of Indonesia, winning the audience over with the authenticity of those memories, and on the issues of democracy and development. He gently reminded Indonesians that they must tackle their grave corruption problem if they hope to realize their aspirations in these areas. And he attempted to dispatch a legacy of distrust and suspicion from the Cold War, when 50 years ago the United States briefly supported Indonesian separatist movements that threatened to tear the country apart. President Obama’s use of the phrase “From Sabang to Merauke”– from Indonesia’s westernmost city in Aceh to its easternmost city in Papua– was designed to demonstrate American support for the “unitary republic” against separatism, and received a rousing round of applause.
Judged as an address to Indonesia, rather than to Islam, the President hit this one out of the park.