Obama's speech to the Muslim world calls for a new beginning
In Jakarta, the US president admits relations have frayed, and praises Indonesia for its tolerance to all communities
White House planners initially considered Indonesia as the location for Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world, which he eventually gave in Cairo in June last year. Expectations then were probably impossibly high, and his address in Jakarta today did not get the same dramatic billing. Seventeen months on the mood has soured and polls show that his popularity is in decline across the globe as well as at home.
Yet the resonant vow that "America is not and never will be at war with Islam" is one that bears repeating in the wake of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and faltering attempts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Obama went for candour, admitting that US relations with "Muslim communities" – a carefully chosen phrase – had frayed over many years but he repeated his resonant Cairo call for a "new beginning that creates a path for us to move beyond our differences".
Violent extremists – "al-Qaida and its affiliates" – had no claim to be leaders of any religion: "Certainly not a great, world religion like Islam." Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim majority country, was praised lavishly for its successes in fighting terrorism and promoting tolerance.
The effect of modern globalised fanaticism was captured in a well-crafted passage that will make sense to many: "Our world has grown smaller and while those forces that connect us have unleashed opportunity, they also empower those who seek to derail progress. One bomb in a marketplace can obliterate the bustle of daily commerce. One whispered rumour can obscure the truth, and set off violence between communities that once lived in peace. In an age of rapid change and colliding cultures, what we share as human beings can be lost."
The president's visit to Jakarta's Istiqlal mosque – designed by a Christian architect – evoked Indonesia's ability "to bridge divides of race and region and religion" and his own happy childhood memories of the four years he spent there.
US goals in Afghanistan remained: "Peace for a war-torn land and one that provides no safe haven for violent extremists." Efforts to end the war in Iraq were continuing – a "core commitment" that contrasted starkly with George Bush's defensive, no apologies autobiography.
"False starts and setbacks" had been the story in dealing with Israelis and Palestinians. "Enormous obstacles" remained, he admitted. In Cairo he called the situation of Palestinians under occupation "intolerable" and demanded that Israel halt settlement activity. Yet more settlements drew another presidential rebuke from Jakarta hours before he gave his speech. Obama's commitment, though, remains firm: "We will spare no effort in working for the outcome that is just, and that is in the interest of all the parties involved: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."
Still, it is actions that will in the end speak louder than even the most eloquent words.