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Obama's speech: The view from Jakarta

Obama’s speech was highly anticipated here, his former home, but to everyone’s surprise it was not a game-changer.

Obama lived here with his mother and step-father, attending a local elementary school from ages 6 to 10. During that time, he encountered Islamic culture on a personal level, at times praying alongside Muslims in the mosque. It is for this reason that Indonesians feel Obama has a unique knowledge and understanding of Islam not found in former American presidents.

And it is for that reason they had high expectations for his speech in Cairo.

“If you don’t know each other, then you can’t love each other,” said Humaidi Sarjono, 32, a student of Islamic philosophy and mysticism in Jakarta. “Obama’s speech is proof that the idea of a clash of civilizations is not true. Obama is creating a dialogue. A clash only exists when there is a lack of dialogue. Until now, there have been very few attempts between the West and Muslims to understand each other.”

At a cafe around the corner from his Islamic university in South Jakarta, Sarjono and several of his friends watched Obama’s speech, quietly nodding throughout.

Though they acknowledged the speech was a good first step, they were far from floored.

“To me, it was a lot of words and no action,” said Dian Teja, 25. “If Obama really wants to make change, he needs to change American policy.”

Most importantly, he said, American needed to change its policy toward Israel and Palestine.

“If America continues to blindly support Israel, Muslims will be angry everywhere,” said Teja. “Obama has the intention to build goodwill with Muslims worldwide. But so far he is just an actor. This is just a spectacle. The dialogue is good. But if the policy doesn’t change, nothing will change.”

The students also bristled at Obama’s comments about nuclear weapons.

“It’s not fair. Why are Muslim countries prohibited from developing nuclear weapons, while America and Israel have so many?” asked Reno Ramutu, 26. “Israel has nuclear weapons, so why can’t Iran? It is very biased. I mean, it is simple logic that if one country has certain weapons, others will want them as well.”

In Javanese culture it is believed that people with big ears like to listen. And so the students here expect that Obama, who they said has “really big” ears, after an hour of talking, will now start listening.

“We are not just fighting a physical war, but also a war of ideas. He is saying all this in a very diplomatic way and I think people who understand history will appreciate his speech. It is very brave for him being a leader of the West, which has a stereotype of being so bad, to make this speech,” said Retno Pratiwi, 24.

“It takes all of us, together, to stick to the ideals of humanity in order to create a new world for the future, where we don’t just look at the past but learn from the past. Like Obama said, it is easier to blame each other than to look into ourselves. It is true, Obama must listen but everyone must listen. If you believe in peace, if you believe in a better society, then you must listen.”