Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

President Barack Obama concluded his brief visit to Indonesia yesterday, fulfilling his promise to travel there despite having cancelled three prior trips to the land where he spent time as a young boy (between 1967-71). The cancellations had provoked much discussion there and among those who study Indonesia, some of whom were worried that that the President had irrevokably strained relations by not following through on his trips.

The naysayers were mostly proven wrong, however, as by all accounts the President was warmly welcomed by most Indonesians. Despite the admonition not to protest from Taufik Kiemas, the Head of Indonesia’s parliament (among other leaders), there were demonstrations throughout the archipelago, but these were mostly small and carried out by Islamist Hizbut Tahrir (more on this below).

The trip didn’t seem to bring much by way of serious negotiations or deals between Indonesia and the United States — and some Indonesians, including parliamentarian Priyo Budi Santoso, expressed disappointment — although the President stated that he’d like the United States to become Indonesia’s #1 trading partner (it’s #3 now). And there were some some items of discussion that were seemingly off the table, perhaps to keep the friendly tone of discussion from deteriorating (see below). The President also visited the region where he lived in Jakarta as a boy, and impressed and pleased his hosts by using some Indonesian terms that he remembered (or relearned).

Critics, however, fired shots from all directions, both in the US and abroad. In the US, controversy over the trip increased last week when Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann repeated misinformation propagated by Fox News that the trip would cost US taxpayers $200 million per day, and require one-tenth of the US Navy fleet. Despite the ridiculous nature of the figure — more per day than it costs to prosecute the war in Afghanistan — it continued to bounce around in some conservative echo chambers. The rumor made news in Indonesia as well, although as this article in the Tribun Timur points out, the coverage contained the White House denial of the figure.

The President’s trip to Indonesia also included a trip to Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Conforming to custom, First Lady Michelle Obama wore a scarf over her head. For those Americans who already believe that Obama is a Muslim — around 20 percent overall, and around one-third of all conservative Republicans, according to a Pew poll — the visit worked them into further frenzy as it was proof positive that the President is a secret Muslim. This is simply not true, but no amount of evidence will dissuade the conspiracy theorists.

The mainstream Indonesian media was, for the most part, kind to the President. Stories captured the minute details and goings-on of his trip, what he ate, what she wore, where they visited, what he said, etc.

But the visit also spurred demonstrations and protests around the archipelago, for a variety of reasons. Some protested the US role in Afghanistan and Iraq, or US support for Israel. Some were against US economic policy. Some, however, seemed so anxious to protest the President that they didn’t articulate for themselves a clear message in their protest.

Take, for example, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Widely considered something of a fringe cult in Indonesia, HTI is the Indonesian branch of a global organization that supports shariah law and the establishment of a global caliphate. It’s banned in some countries, but because it does not openly espouse violence or overthrowing the state except through democratic means, it is a legal, above ground organization in Indonesia, although its appeal is very limited. Perhaps part of the limit of its appeal is in its confused messages.

One post on its website attempted to debunk the myth that Barack Obama is a Muslim — because he is “100% Jewish.” The article continues to invoke two powerful narratives of the Islamic world by calling him a Pharaoh and the leader of a Crusade. Confused? Didn’t Medievel Christians also target Jews? Didn’t the Pharaoh try to kill Moses, an Israelite whose people later became Jews (and then Christians, and the Muslims)? A group called sharia4Indonesia distributed  posters depicting Obama a pharaoh–a reference to a story in the Qur’an about a tyrannical leader who suffers the wrath of God.

A Hizbut Tahrir spokesperson in Makassar — far from Obama’s visit — protested that the President’s visit was to solidify economic domination over Indonesia. Other Hizbut Tahrir posts compared the President to Mt. Merapi, a volcano in Central Java that continues to erupt and that has killed nearly 200 people. I can’t imagine that endeared them to the tens of thousands of evacuees from the volcano, or other rational thinkers in Indonesia.

"Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia with the ummat rejects Obama, president of the colonial country"

Another flap emerged when Minister of Communication and Information Tifatul Sembiring,  a staunchly conservative Muslim from the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, shook the hand of Michele Obama in a receiving line. Realizing he would be criticized by constituents for having been in physical contact with a woman to whom he is not related, he attempted to stave off criticism with a lamely worded Twitter post about how he tried to prevent touching hands with the First Lady but that she held her hands too closely to him. Video footage clearly shows him enthusiastically stretching out two hands to First Lady Obama, and he has been vilified as a liar and munafik (hypocrite) on Islamist websites and blog posts.

Indonesia’s anti-terrorism police force Densus 88 was on alert in case President Obama faced any threats, perhaps in reaction to recent news that Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Basyir mentioned “taking advantage of” President Obama’s upcoming trip. The statement was made in January about President Obama’s trip that was originally scheduled for March, but was cancelled. Basyir remains in jail on terrorism charges.

The subject of US support for Densus 88 was one that was apparently not broached, at least not in public. Densus 88 is the only arm of the Indonesian police that gets consistently positive reviews from the Indonesian people for its successes in capturing or killing suspected terrorists. It has recently, however, been accused of violations of human rights in the archipelago, and for its apparent “shoot first” approach to terrorists.Despite domestic Indonesian criticism of the group, it appears that the Indonesian government does not want to take action against Densus 88, and the US appears not to want to discuss it either (although the US did secretly cancel ties to an arm of Densus 88 in Ambon over human rights concerns).

Last summer the US renewed ties to the Indonesian military special forces Kopassus, which will mobilize its own anti-terror unit. Critics point out that the problems within Kopassus that brought the cancellation of ties have not been remedied, including gross human rights violations in trouble spots such as West Papua. A recent video of soldiers torturing West Papuans caused an outcry, including from American activists who disagree with the reinstatement of the ties.

American activists have called on the US government to cut ties, as have Australian activists. Despite recent arguments (such as this by American academic Bill Liddel — response by Head of the Global Nexus Institute Christianto Wibosono here) that Indonesia remains relatively politically weak, especially with regard to its relationship with the United States, it appears as though Indonesia still holds some cards when it comes to the two countries’ relationship.