(CNSNews.com) – Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization is calling on the country’s Muslims not to oppose next week’s visit by President Obama, saying that despite unmet expectations, the president was apparently committed to improving relations with the Muslim world.
Even Mohammed, the Muslim prophet, had taught that Muslims should seek diplomatic relations with adherents of other religions, Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of the general board of Nahdlatul Ulama (N.U.) said on Monday.
Rejecting Obama’s visit would go against “Islamic ethics” as well as the norms of international diplomacy, Hasyim said in comments posted on N.U.’s Web site. Claiming a membership of between 30 and 40 million, N.U. is the biggest Islamic organization in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Various Muslim groups have rallied in Jakarta and other cities in recent days to protest Obama’s upcoming visit, with demonstrators targeting U.S. policies relating to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Indonesia.
The most attention has been given to protests by Hizbut Tahrir, a radical group working to establish an Islamic caliphate. Supporters on Sunday called the U.S. a terrorist state and destroyed American flags.
But other groups also have joined in. According to the online version of Indonesia’s Tempo newsmagazine, a rally in East Java on Monday drew supporters of eight religious organizations including N.U. itself.
Also participating was the Islamic Defenders Front, a small group known for conducting raids against those indulging in activities considered un-Islamic, such as gambling and drinking alcohol, and for its threats against American and other Western nationals.
The government on Monday also urged Indonesians to welcome Obama, while saying it would respect citizens’ rights to express their views.
Dino Patti Djalal, spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said Obama was coming “with good intentions” and Indonesians should set aside prejudices.
Obama, who spent several of his childhood years in Indonesia, is expected to arrive in Jakarta on March 23, a couple of days later than originally expected, after delaying his departure in a bid to focus attention on the drive to push through health care legislation.
Indonesian media commentators say Obama’s boyhood link with Indonesia had the effect of arousing considerable interest in the country, although there has also been evidence of mixed feelings.
Last December the erection of a statue in a Jakarta public park depicting Obama as a child sparked a legal challenge and an online revolt, with more than 50,000 people signing up to a FaceBook page campaigning for its removal.
In February, city officials removed the bronze statue from the park. It was subsequently placed at the elementary school in the capital which Obama attended as a boy.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week Obama would deliver a speech while in Indonesia that would follow up on the one he gave in Cairo last June. In that speech, Obama called for a “new beginning” in relations with the Islamic world, after “years of distrust.”
Obama’s itinerary may also include a visit to Bali, the resort island where al-Qaeda-linked terrorists killed more than 200 people in a 2002 bombing and another 20 in a second bombing three years later.
Yudhoyono’s government has recorded a number of counter-terrorism successes, most recently just last week, when one of the Bali bombing masterminds, an al-Qaeda-trained Indonesian named Dulmatin, was killed in a raid carried out by a special counter-terrorism police unit.
According to Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C, the Obama administration wants to transform the relationship with Indonesia as its predecessor did with India.
A “comprehensive partnership” to be unveiled during the visit will seek to deepen cooperation in six areas, he said – trade and investment, security and defense, education, health care, energy, and transnational issues including nonproliferation and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Obama’s trip will include visits to Australia and the U.S. territory of Guam.