JAKARTA, Indonesia — U.S. President Barack Obama reminisced about the city where he spent years as a child as he sought to stress the importance of rebuilding America’s relationship with the Muslim world in a speech today in a Jakarta suburb.
With occasional snippets of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, Obama draw frequent parallels between the United States and Indonesia throughout his 30-minute speech, citing both countries’ commitment to democracy, development and religious freedom.
And the president credited Indonesia with providing him with invaluable insights and experiences that have helped shape his life and his policies.
“My time here helped me appreciate the common humanity of all people,” he said, speaking to an elated crowd of students, dignitaries and old friends packed into an auditorium at the University of Indonesia in Depak, a southern suburb of Jakarta.
To laughter and applause, the president recalled hearing the cries from vendors selling sate and meatball soup in his old neighborhood.
“Enak, ya!” he said, in one of the morning’s best-received lines. “It’s delicious, eh!”
Throughout his brief visit to Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim country — Obama has stressed the importance of religious tolerance and ties between the United States and Muslim world.
Previous American leaders have tarnished that relationship, he said, and this trip is another concrete step he has made toward bringing the West closer to Islam.
Indonesia is the second leg of Obama’s 10-day, four-nation tour through Asia. Two previous trips to Indonesia this year had been canceled — the first in March because of the U.S. health care vote and the second in June because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Outside the university building, three elderly local men in prayer caps said that, while they understood little of the president’s speech, the fact that Obama greeted the crowd with the words “As salamu Alaykum” was enough to impress them.
“That really made me happy,” said 62-year-old Hambali, who was waiting on the main street leading to campus hoping for a glimpse of the president’s motorcade. “This neighborhood, like this city, is so proud to host him.”
Muhamad Guntur Romli, a local Muslim intellectual, said the vast majority of Jakartans were honored to host the first African-American U.S. president. Obama’s allusions in his speech to his fondness for Indonesian food and his recollections about a Jakarta that is long gone helped to further cement his reputation as a native son here, Romli said.
“This isn’t like welcoming the United States president, it’s like welcoming home an old friend — even a member of our family,” Romli said.
In turn, Obama lavished praise on Indonesia, saying that this country has made great strides toward combating corruption and fighting radical Islamic terrorism. Like any former colonial nation, including the United States, Indonesia’s not perfect, he said, but the country has come a long way from the days when it was ruled by the “iron fist” of a dictatorship.
On the streets leading to the university, several hundred protesters made the most of their freedom to make their opinions heard.
Most visible were several dozen members of Hizb ut Tahrir, a fringe group that advocates for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
Waving black banners emblazoned with anti-Obama messages written in Arabic, the protesters chanted “Allahu Akhbar,” or “God is great,” as police in full riot gear watched the crowd and kept it from moving within sight of the road and Obama’s motorcade.
“Obama is the president of an imperialist state that kills Muslims all over the world and robs Muslim resources,” said Farid, one of the group’s local leaders.
Prior to his long-awaited speech, Obama spent the morning touring Istiqlal mosque, which sits opposite a cathedral close to central Jakarta’s towering national monument. The trip to the mosque was symbolic said Noorhaidi Hasan, a lecturer in Islam and politics at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Jakarta. That symbolism resonated with most people in Jakarta, he said.
In a city that has seen more than its fair share of religious violence — last July two hotels here were bombed by a group linked to Al Qaeda, and seven people were killed — Obama’s visit was also seen as a sign that Indonesia has become safer for business and tourists.
“This shows the world that our country is stable,” said Heru Jakarim, a law student at Jakarta’s Universitas Swasta Indonesia. “There are demonstrations, but they are completely peaceful. And the police have been well-behaved, too.”
Inside the grounds of the University of Indonesia, crowds of students wearing traditional Indonesian batik shirts chattered excitedly about the speech they had been fortunate enough to be invited to.
“I remember he said ‘Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty,’ said 18-year-old Santi, who studies international relations at the university. “I really liked that. I tweeted it, actually.”
Clutching the paper invitations they had shown up at dawn to collect, Santi and her two friends laughed when they were asked what they planned to do with the documents.
“I’m just going to wave it at my friends and say ‘yeaahhh!’” Santi said. “I feel so proud today to be a student at this university.”