Beyond Insensitivity: Bush Sends Mixed Signals to Indonesian Muslims

Published on Friday, October 17, 2003 by

In the corridors of power in Washington and on the campuses of American universities these days, the great topic of debate is: How can the U.S. government better communicate with Muslims around the world?

The simply answer is, it cannot. Not as long as U.S. policy is driven by a combination of arrogance and naivet�.

George W. Bush simply doesn't "get it." He does not understand how non-Americans think and, it is increasingly obvious, he does not care.

Nothing summed that up better than his comments as he departed for Indonesia and other Asian countries. It was a telling clash of words and images.

Standing beside Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man whose movies epitomize American muscle, Bush explained that the goal of the trip was "to make sure that the people who are suspicious of our country understand our motives are pure."

The setting said precisely the opposite. And as if that was not enough, he then added a threat: "America is following a new strategy. We are not waiting for further attacks. We are striking back." He might just as well have said, "We will Terminate you."

The Hollywood imagery and the belligerent tone may play well to the home crowd, but it was a moment devoid of any sense of the Asian culture of compromise which Bush was about to enter.

The president said he was stopping in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, "to make clear to the world that, by far, the vast majority of Muslims in that country value democracy and want to have a peaceful life."

But his actions telegraphed the message that he believes something different. Bush has chosen to visit Bali, the one island in the vast archipelago whose population is Hindu, not Muslim. White House handlers may defensively talk of his desire to visit the site of the Bali bombing that killed more than 200 foreigners, but the slight will not be lost on Indonesian Muslims. Nor will his demand that President Megawati Sukarnoputri bring the killers to justice, a confrontational approach that is not only at odds with Indonesia's non-confrontational culture, but which also makes Megawati's domestic political tightrope walk that much more difficult.

With its first one-man one-vote presidential election scheduled for next year, Indonesia has the potential to serve as a template for future Muslim democracies that give Islamists a peaceful outlet for their political aspirations.

But Indonesia, which has always been home to an extremely accommodating strain of Islam, also holds the potential to become America's worst nightmare. Since Bush declared his "Crusade" against "evil" post-911, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, America's "favorable" rating among Indonesians has plummeted from 61 percent to just 15 percent. That shift has strengthened the hand of the radicals and made it even more difficult for the self-styled "liberal" Muslims in their political struggle with those seeking an Islamic form of government.

"My rejection of the U.S. invitation to meet Bush is not an act of hatred but a protest over the country's unfair treatment of other nations in the world," said a popular Indonesian cleric known, as Aa Gym, in announcing that he will snub Bush. It was a sentiment that was shared by many Indonesian Muslims even before the president staged his photo op.

For Indonesians, form very definitely does matter. In 1998, then-President Suharto tore up a $43 billion IMF bailout package after he saw a photo of the signing ceremony in which IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus stood -- arms crossed -- looking down at Suharto. In the stylized culture of Java, in which respect for the ruler is paramount and body language communicates far more than words, crossing ones arms is, at best, a sign of arrogance, and at worst, a conscious insult.

"We are talking about dignity," a senior government official said at the time. "We are talking sovereignty. We want help, but at what cost?"

Bush may genuinely believe that the purpose of his trip is "to make sure that the people who are suspicious of our country understand our motives are pure," but a headline in Indonesian newspapers that declares "We will strike back" juxtaposed against a photo of Bush and the Terminator sends a clear message that those motives are anything but pure.

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