Obama's Indonesia Address: Not Quite a Follow-Up to Cairo

On June 4, 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo University, greeted Egyptians with "assalam aleikum," or peace be upon you, and charmed the Islamic world.

"Under the past administration, there was a feeling that the Islamic world was a group of terrorists, Islam was hated and Muslims should be watched..." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Reuters at the time. "But Obama came and said, 'We will not fight Muslims and Islam.' He is a sympathetic man..."

Obama chiseled away at the anti-American sentiment of the Arab world with his words. "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he said. He got it.

But now, 17 months later, the stagnant conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and domestic anti-Islamic sentiment -- in the form of the Cordoba community center and Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn a Quran this summer--have sullied Obama's clean slate. In 2008, six percent of Egyptians approved of U.S. leadership. After Obama's speech, the number rose to 37 percent. In April of 2010, it was 19 percent. Gallup polls show similar numbers in other Arabic countries.

"There's still a perception out there that the U.S. is still at war with the Muslim world," explains Steven Simon, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  We have deepened our commitment in Afghanistan, left Iraq unstable, and are increasingly confrontational toward Iran. Our diplomatic battle with Iran is widely seen among Muslims as "the U.S. picking another enemy in the Muslim world," Simon says.

Obama seems to be aware of his increasingly negative image in the Muslim world. Today in Jakarta, the president attempted to follow up on his Cairo speech and to reach out to the international Muslim community. While expressing his continued commitment to repair the "frayed" relationship between the United States and Muslims, Obama admitted that "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," but that we could "choose to do the hard work of forging common ground and commit ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress."

He mentioned Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He emphasized that America is at war with extremists, not Islam. And, of course, he acknowledged the long road ahead.

"We know well the issues that have caused tensions for many years--issues that I addressed in Cairo," he said. "In the 17 months that have passed, we have made some progress, but much more work remains to be done."

Notably, his Cairo follow-up remarks represented a disproportionately small part of his message at the University of Indonesia. He didn't say anything new, or different. So why did the White House choose to characterize his entire speech as a follow-up? And why now?

Israel's announcement on Monday of the construction of 1000 housing units in a contested part of East Jerusalem makes the last question particularly salient. Obama effectively denounced Israel's announcement on Tuesday. "I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough," he said. "...This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations." So perhaps his remarks were perfectly timed to reaffirm an American commitment to the Muslim world.

But beyond Israel's announcement, Simon says it would have been impossible for the president to evade the subject of Islam on a visit to Jakarta, the home of the largest majority population of Muslims in the world. Indonesia was even a contender for the location of Obama's original Cairo speech.

"The Cairo speech was bound to disappoint," Simon explains. "But nevertheless, the criticism directed at the Cairo speech, that it was insincere, that the White House blew smoke at the Arabs, these are things that require a response on the part of the White House. Jakarta is the place to respond."

Jakarta was also a difficult place to respond. From an outside perspective, or particularly a perspective from the Arab world, it might seem as if Obama's speech contained too little discussion of American/Muslim relations. But according to Donald Emmerson, the director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, the White House crafted Obama's speech this way for a reason. If Obama devoted the majority of his time to addressing Muslims, he would be missing a key tenet of the Indonesian ideology: Many Indonesian nationalists don't consider Islam to be the most important aspect of their identities.

Emmerson says Obama was wise to address them as Indonesians, and not merely Muslims. "[Indonesian] Muslims and non-Muslims are bothered when people refer to Indonesia as a Muslim country," Emmerson explains, noting that it is not an Islamic state. Like the United States, Indonesia's independence isn't rooted in a notion of ethnicity or religion, or any inherited identity. Rather, it was founded with ideas: freedom, unity and diversity.

Indonesians, too, felt optimistic after hearing Obama's Cairo remarks. But like communities in the Arab world, they have been disappointed by the past 17 months.

Jakarta, then, was a fitting place for Obama to reignite support in the Muslim world: He could couch his message in the comfortable rhetoric of hope, and speak to the similarities of the two countries.

"I believe that the history of both America and Indonesia gives us hope," Obama said. "...We are two nations which have traveled different paths. Yet our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag."