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In Indonesia, Obama reaches out to Muslims

Declares US will never be at war with Islam

President Obama and Indonesia’s leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, visited Merdeka Palace in Jakarta yesterday. President Obama and Indonesia’s leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, visited Merdeka Palace in Jakarta yesterday. (Adi Weda/Reuters/Pool)
By Ben Feller
Associated Press / November 10, 2010

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — In the Muslim nation that was his boyhood home, President Obama acknowledged today that US relations are still frayed with the Islamic world despite his best efforts at repair. He urged all sides to look beyond “suspicion and mistrust’’ to forge common ground against terrorism.

Forcefully returning to a theme he sounded last year in visits to Turkey and Egypt, Obama said: “I have made it clear that America is not and never will be at war with Islam. . . . Those who want to build must not cede ground to terrorists who seek to destroy.’’

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Beaming with pride, Obama delivered perhaps the most intensely personal speech of his presidency, speaking phrases in Indonesian to a cheering crowd of young people who claimed him as their own.

“Let me begin with a simple statement: Indonesia is part of me,’’ he said in Indonesian during a morning speech at the University of Indonesia.

He praised the world’s most populous Muslim nation for standing its ground against “violent extremism’’ and said: “All of us must defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates, who have no claim to be leaders of any religion. . . . This is not a task for America alone.’’

Seeking to cement relations with fast-growing Asian trading partners, Obama also paid tribute to the economic dynamism of the region at a time of global financial stress.

“America has a stake in Indonesia that is growing, with prosperity that is broadly shared among the Indonesian people — because a rising middle class here means new markets for our goods, just as America is a market for yours,’’ he said.

The speech was made ahead of a meeting of the Group of 20 major economic powers that begins this evening in Seoul, a session expected to be marked by trade tensions between the United States and major exporting nations such as China and Germany.

Earlier today in Jakarta, Obama visited the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia — one that Obama noted was under construction when he lived here as a boy from 1967 to 1971.

“Because Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages, and people from scores of regions and ethnic groups, my times here helped me appreciate the humanity of all people,’’ Obama said.

The president’s brief but nostalgic visit to his boyhood home lent an unusually personal tone to the speech, a portion of which he devoted to his childhood here. Obama reminisced about living in a small house with a mango tree out front, and learning to love his adopted home while flying kites, running along paddy fields, catching dragonflies, and buying such delicacies as satay and baso from street vendors. He spoke of running in fields with water buffalo and goats and the birth of his sister, Maya, who is half-Indonesian.

Obama moved to Indonesia as a 6-year-old and lived with his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro. “While my stepfather, like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim, he firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect,’’ Obama said.

Obama, a Christian, attended public and Catholic schools while in Indonesia. He returned to Hawaii when he was 10 to live with his grandparents.

The president’s homecoming had been twice-delayed — first because of his health care legislative battle and then because of the BP oil spill.

“We had a couple of false starts,’’ he noted. And this trip was to be cut short, too, so Air Force One could take off ahead of a big cloud of ash from the erupting Indonesian volcano Mount Merapi.

Reaching out to the Islamic world, Obama said efforts to build trust and peace are showing promise but are still clearly incomplete.

“Relations between the United States and Muslim nations have been frayed over many years. As president, I have made it a priority to begin to repair these relations,’’ Obama said.

He said a choice must be made by both sides: “We can choose to be defined by our differences and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging common ground and commit ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress.’’

And, a week after seeing his own Democratic Party suffer bruising midterm election defeats in the US Congress, Obama added: “Not everyone likes the results of every election. You go through ups and downs. But the journey is worthwhile.’’

On the Middle East, Obama mentioned the difficult path toward getting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians back on course.

“We have faced false starts and setbacks,’’ Obama said. “There should be no illusions that peace and security will come easy.’’

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