Obama Marks New Direction in US Relations with Islam

Barack Obama, seated at far right, during his stay in Jakarta. His Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, is seated far left.
Barack Obama, seated at far right, during his stay in Jakarta. His Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, is seated far left.

President Barack Obama wrapped up his visit to Europe with a stop in Istanbul and a speech in which he appealed directly to Muslims worldwide to forge a new relationship with the U.S. With American forces still occupying Iraq and set to vastly increase their presence in Afghanistan, the response from the Islamic community has been mixed.

The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people. -Obama, 4/6/2009

In Southeast Asia, however, the US faces a range of policy issues.

Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says that Obama will visit Jakarta later this year. Evidently, at a breakfast meeting at the recent G-20 meeting, Obama used the Bahasa word capek to ask if Yudhoyono was tired – a gesture that caused the Indonesian president to fondly recall Obama’s time in Indonesia as a child.

When Obama visits Indonesia later this year, he will face a delicate counter-terrorism program and a country struggling with the global economic downturn. And, although many Indonesians praise Obama’s recent efforts, they are still wary of eight years of a largely unpopular Bush-era policy towards Muslims. (On election day last year, I traveled through Central Java and spoke with Indonesians about Obama – you can check out the story here.)

I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. -Obama, 4/6/2009

In Southern Thailand, a conflict between Muslim separatist forces and the central government has claimed more than three-thousand civilian lives over the last few years. When Obama was sworn in as president the Thai Indian community highlighted his remarks about the Muslim community.

But Obama’s efforts to reach out to countries in the region has drawn some criticism. In a Februrary 6th op-ed article, The Bangkok Post called for a more direct engagement with the new administration.

“Many in Thailand, which has 175 years of rock-solid support and harmony with the US, feel the new leadership in Washington is turning its back on an old friend. Singaporeans and Filipinos have said much the same. The new administration maintains it truly wants to focus on our region. It is important to include wary countries like Indonesia in the dialogue. But it is vital not to ignore old and trusted friends.”

And in the Philippines, many say the continuing US military aid to the country’s armed forces is making a decades-old conflict in Mindanao worse.

In the on-line weekly, Bulatlat, Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes, Jr. makes the connection between human rights abuses under the Arroyo administration and continuing support from the U.S.

“It behooves the Obama administration to reexamine its military aid to the abusive and corrupt Arroyo administration. Obama can do the right thing and cut aid to Arroyo now.”

Obama faces a range of complicated issues in Southeast Asia, but in the end, it may be his personal claim that edges him closer to a true reconciliation with Islam.

We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world — including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them. -Obama, 4/6/2009

Read the full text of Obama’s speech delivered to the Turkish Parliament on April 6, 2009 here.

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