Baby steps for better US-Muslim ties


Dialogue raises hopes as Indonesia’s religious leaders and Bush show a willingness to listen to each other’s views.


IT WAS not the welcome that any visiting foreign dignitary would like.

On the road leading to the ocean-front resort in Bali where US President George W. Bush held meetings with Indonesian leaders, protesters carried banners that read: ‘Hang Bush, he is a terrorist.’

And minutes before he spoke yesterday at a joint press conference with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a loud blast shook Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi, some 600km north-west from the tourist island resort.

Indonesian police are investigating the cause of the explosion. Sceptics in Indonesia who see Mr Bush’s visit as a mere public relations exercise for the United States say that the demonstrations and explosions are indications of underlying resentment in the country against ‘the great enemy of Islam’.

But the five religious leaders who met the American President in Bali yesterdaymight have gone back thinking there is a ray of hope – baby steps at least for both the US and especially Indonesian Muslims to understand each other better.

Before the visit, Mr Syafii Maarif, chairman of the 25-million-strong Muhammadiyah organisation, had conceded publicly that he had little hope of a positive result from meeting Mr Bush.

But he made it clear that it was worth a try. After all, he said that even God told Pro phet Moses to meet Pharaoh his enemy and ordered him to speak softly.

Mr Syafii went for the meeting. But he did not speak softly.

Like others who were present, he spoke directly and candidly to convey his message to Mr Bush.

A meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes stretched on for another half an hour.

‘Each of us spoke what was on our minds,’ Mr Syafii told The Straits Times.

‘We knew that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime meeting and it was important for us to get the message across to him.’

To be sure, Mr Bush’s three-hour visit did little to clear fundamental differences of views on the Palestinian issue, Israel, the US invasion of Iraq and Islam.

Mr Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of the Nadhlatul Ulama, said Muslims had great difficulty accepting US policy in the Middle East that favoured Israel over Palestine and Arab countries.

He said: ‘President Bush told us that Palestine will be independent but he did not indicate when. The US is still siding with Israel.’

The biggest sore point for the Muslim leaders was their perception that the US was attempting to link Islam with terrorism – a point which Mr Bush rejected when he spoke to reporters.

Mr Syafii said: ‘We said that it was wrong for him to use words like crusade’ … He admitted to us that he had made a mistake by mentioning it after the Sept 11 attacks.’

And linked to that criticism was America’s ‘careless attempt’ to categorise Indonesia as a base for terrorists.

Muslim leaders like Mr Hasyim welcome Mr Bush’s six-year US$157 million (S$273 million) programme for Indonesia to help improve education and counter the anti-American message in Islamic religious schools in the country.

But his preference was for the US not to ‘meddle’ in the educational curriculum of these schools.

‘Just give us the money and let us decide what to do with it.’

No doubt, the Americans are unlikely to hand over large dollops of cash without a clue as to how it might be used.

But despite these differences, there was an attempt by both sides to listen to each other.

My Syafii said Mr Bush was very enthusiastic and was a good listener.

He said: ‘The important thing is that this dialogue ever took place. We need to understand the Americans as much as they need to understand us.

‘We need to be realistic because we still rely a lot on the US. We cannot pretend that we don’t need them.’

Baby steps for now.

Terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration defile one of the world’s great faiths. Murder has no place in any religious tradition. It must find no home in Indonesia.’
– President George W. Bush, speaking during his visit to Bali

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