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Obama asks Muslims to embrace tolerance

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand with Grand Imam Yaqub as they visit Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday.  (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand with Grand Imam Yaqub as they visit Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday. (Associated Press)

Says that “history is on the side of human progress.”

JAKARTA, Indonesia – President Barack Obama today called on Muslims worldwide to reject al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, saying they had no claim to leadership in the Islamic world.

In an address to University of Indonesia students in the country where he spent four years of his childhood – the world’s largest Muslim-majority country – Obama urged his listeners to embrace the tolerance that he says he encountered here.

“As a Christian visiting a mosque on this visit,” he said, “I found it in the words of a leader who was asked about my visit and said, ‘Muslims are also allowed in churches. We are all God’s followers.’ ”

Obama took office pledging a “new beginning” in relations with Muslims, and he traveled to Cairo less than six months after becoming president to make his first high-profile speech to the Islamic world. But many Muslims have been disappointed by his inability to push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace and have watched uneasily as he escalated the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Obama’s second major address directed at Muslims weaved his personal story into a testimony about the possibilities of tolerance and cooperation. He had to tread carefully, however, in consideration of political concerns back home. Polls show that, despite the fact that he is a Christian and has professed his faith repeatedly, many Americans still believe that he is a Muslim.

Still, Obama – who was greeted with thunderous cheering when he opened with a traditional Muslim greeting and used Indonesian phrases – spoke about his childhood in a way that he hasn’t since the publication of his first memoir, adding thoughts not expressed publicly before.

Obama told his audience of about 6,500 that he moved to Indonesia in 1967 as a 7-year-old, when his mother married an Indonesian.

“While my stepfather, like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim, he firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect,” Obama said. “In this way, he reflected the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.”

Yet Obama also acknowledged the “false starts and setbacks” that have unsettled Muslims, including stalled peace efforts in the Middle East.

The stakes there are high for the whole international community, he said. Technology and global communications have unleashed a world of opportunity, but they have also empowered “those who seek to derail progress,” Obama said, adding that he would spare no effort to reach a two-state solution.

“One bomb in a marketplace can obliterate the bustle of daily commerce,” he said. “One whispered rumor can obscure the truth, and set off violence between communities that once lived in peace.”

But Obama said he was committed to overcoming the obstacles to peace, and he added that he takes to heart the words of the local leader who suggested Christians are welcome in mosques after being asked about Obama’s visit to the Istiqlal Mosque, where first lady Michelle Obama wore a beige headscarf with gold beads as a sign of respect.

“That spark of the divine lies within each of us,” Obama said. “We cannot give in to doubt or cynicism or despair. The stories of Indonesia and America tell us that history is on the side of human progress; that unity is more powerful than division; and that the people of this world can live together in peace.”