The President’s national security team prepared a solid speech for him to deliver at the University of Indonesia yesterday. The speech, intended as a follow up to his 2009 Cairo speech to the “Muslim world,” was first posted on the State Department’s America.gov website in its “as prepared for delivery” form. It was well-tailored to an Indonesian audience and avoided all the ill-advised religious language of the Cairo speech.
Unfortunately, the President had some of ideas of his own.
Judging by the changes posted in the revised speech he ad-libbed.
Apparently, the President believes his experience in Indonesia between the ages of six and 10 trumps the wisdom of the professionals hired to advise him. The speech, still pointing to the importance of Indonesia’s diversity, tolerance and constitutionalism, was amended at beginning and end with “assalamualaikum.”
Now, just to be clear: There is nothing wrong with this phrase. In English, it means “peace be upon you.” Muslims around the world use it as a greeting. The Indonesian President himself uses it to open public speeches. It is a fine sentiment and one to be respected.
But there is a problem with President Obama using it. First off, in the Indonesian context, it is a bit nonsensical for a Christian to use; It is something that Indonesian Muslims—devout ones in particular—sometimes say to each other. I must say that in dozens of visits to Indonesia, I, a Christian myself, and with many Indonesian friends, have never said it. Interestingly enough, in much of the Arab world—from whence the phrase originates—Christian do not say it; Marhaba (hello) is a readily available non-sectarian greeting.
That’s the protocol. And in this case, it is just plain wrong. Silly, really. Its like Obama’s bow to the Japanese emperor, the Chinese President Hu Jintao and King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. Its just too much.
But its more than just protocol. Indonesia is at least 15 percet non-Muslim. How are these non-muslims to feel about the President of the United States greeting them in a way intended for Muslims? How should they interpret it? They were, after all, in the audience, too
Certainly, the President of the United States should be mindful of their concerns. At the very least, he should not compound their discomfort. There are also many, many Muslims who prefer not to wear their religion on their sleeve. Is President Obama endorsing the views of those like Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information Tifatul Sembiring? Tifatul, former President and member of Indonesia’s Islamist PKS, believes Indonesia is not Islamic enough, and that, among other things, Muslim men should be forbidden to shake hands with women. The President knows him well for the press coverage of his struggle with being presented the First Lady’s hand.
The President of the United States represents all Americans. Likewise, when abroad he should speak to both majorities and minorities in the countries he visits. He spoke eloquently about Indonesia’s tolerance, citing its unique national ideology Pancasila (the five pillars of Indonesian constitutionalism: belief in god, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, representative democracy, and social justice) and its national motto, Bhinneka Tunngal Ika (Unity in Diversity). Unfortunately, his use of an exclusive greeting, seemingly a small thing, spoke just as loud.