YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA – As he delivered his historic acceptance speech in a Chicago park, Barack Obama paused at one point to speak directly to the world community.
“And all those watching tonight from beyond our shores,” he said. “To those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world: our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared.”
Joko Lelono was among the millions of people in Indonesia who had been following the U.S. presidential election, listening to talk radio as he worked in a restaurant here in this Central Java region.
“Most of us here in Indonesia, in Asia, are for Obama,” he said as vendors rattled through the narrow alley next to the restaurant and the neighborhood’s mosque, just a few storefronts away, finished calling the morning prayer.
“We hope that he can make a change, a positive change,” said Lelono, 36. “Not only here, but also in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Africa.”
AS NEWS OF THE ELECTION RESULTS SPREAD throughout this Asian country, people celebrated with a passion that revealed the close bond that many Indonesians feel for Obama. In Sumatra, smiling women posed for photographs with a cardboard cutout of the man who is affectionately called “Barry” here. In Central Jakarta, students at the public elementary school where Obama spent four years as a child, gathered and watched the results on television sets, cheering when news of his win was broadcast. And in Yogyakarta, where I had arrived just a day before, my cell phone lit up with text messages.
A colleague of mine at the Jakarta Post newspaper, a young man who regularly – even midst the pressures of deadlines – managed to make the obligatory prayer in the office’s prayer room, alerted me that CNN had called the results for Obama. Another friend from Jakarta, who describes herself as a moderate Muslim, sent the message: “Obama win!!!”
The US election dominated the local papers. The Jakarta Post called Obama the “Menteng kid,” after the neighborhood where he lived as a child. The Indonesian-language Koran Tempo ran a huge front page headline: “BRAVO!” And another publication, Kompas, featured a special four-page section which included a photograph of Obama as a smiling nine year-old, sitting with his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, and his half-sister, Maya, perched on her mother’s lap.
I HAD SPENT THE WEEKS leading up to the election traveling through the country and speaking with Indonesians from all walks of life. Their voices were at times tentative, inquisitive, strident and curious. But all of them, in this country of 235 million that makes up the most populous Muslim country in the world, expressed a belief that the outcome, more than any other US presidential election in recent memory, would have a broad impact on their own daily lives. One Jakarta friend even admitted that she had been following the American presidential race more closely than the national election here set for early 2009.
Four days before voters would cast their vote in the US, I left Jakarta to visit a number of pesantrens, or Islamic boarding schools. I spoke with half a dozen kiyai, or religious leaders. Our conversations often touched on the upcoming presidential contest.
At a one-hundred year old school in West Java, the kiyai questioned me repeatedly about Obama. What did Americans think of him? Did he really have a chance? What would his win mean for Asia?
After speaking at length about Indonesia’s internal struggles, he turned to relations between the US and Indonesia.
“Human beings are one in the same. We’re unified,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our differences in faith or economic matters. The principle is a principle of unity.”
IN YOGYAKARTA, I spoke with Kiyai Muhaimin, who along with his wife, runs an organization in Central Java that brings together Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in interfaith dialogue. Kiyai Mihaimin spoke passionately about inclusion and pluralism in Indonesian society, but added that he had recently declined an American official’s request to visit his pesantren because of what he viewed as the Bush administration’s penchant for harsh rhetoric and war-making as part of a global assault against Muslims.
I asked him if he would welcome a visit from Barack Obama, and he thought for a moment. Yes, he said. Not because of Obama’s personal connection to the country, but because he believed Obama’s ideas of inclusion were sincere.
ON ELECTION DAY in the U.S. I was thousands of miles away at the Borobudur Temple, a site of ancient Buddhist stone carvings and a symbol of Indonesia’s diverse cultural and religious tradition. The temple is divided into multiple levels, with the bottom representing the troubles and conflict of the daily world and the top a place of achievement, peace and harmony.
As we climbed the narrow staircase, my guide, a 32-year-old man named Aris, pointed to the spot where in 1985 religious radicals exploded a number of bombs in an effort to destroy the sacred Buddha statues. The violence was repeated throughout the country with a series of bombings over the years, the worst of which was the 2002 Bali attacks that killed over 200 people.
Today, the threat of violence still persists and the events are a reminder of the deep challenges that Indonesia, America and the world continue to face. Obama’s victory is seen by many in the global community as a step towards remaking America’s role in the world.
“We look to America for innovation, in technology, in the economy,” said Aris, looking out over the top of the stone temple.
“It’s a new perspective,” he said.