JAKARTA (AFP) – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Wednesday in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, on a mission to start mending US ties with the Islamic world.
She was to meet Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and leaders of the Jakarta-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) later in the day on the second leg of her four-nation swing through Asia.
Wearing a red coat over a black blouse and trousers, Clinton touched down under heavy cloud and was greeted by senior officials and a choir of female students from US President Barack Obama’s old primary school in Jakarta.
Obama spent part of his early childhood here and has promised to improve relations with the Islamic world after the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush.
“We have a responsibility to speak out and to work with the Muslim world on behalf of positive change and to enlist the help of Muslims around the world against the extremists,” Clinton told students in Japan on Tuesday.
“And it is very difficult in many parts of the world today to do that,” said the chief US diplomat, who acknowledged that the war in Iraq was a stumbling block to better US ties with the Muslim world.
In her first overseas trip in her new role, she said she wanted to follow in Obama’s footsteps and “speak directly to Muslims.”
She recalled Obama’s childhood days in Jakarta’s Menteng One primary school in the late 1960s, a personal connection with Indonesia that has helped make him hugely popular in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
But while the vast majority of the massive archipelago’s 234 million people are moderates, Indonesia has seen its share of Islamist violence — including the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which killed more than 200 people.
A small fringe of radical extremists continues to call for “holy war” against the West and demands the implementation of hardline Islamic sharia law in Indonesia.
Indonesian extremist groups have rejected Obama’s attempts to reach out to the modern world, saying Washington merely wants to use Indonesia to window-dress what they say are anti-Muslim policies.
A small group of about 50 Muslim students protested Wednesday at the US embassy, carrying banners reading “America is a rubbish civilisation” and “America is the real terrorist.”
“Hillary, Hillary, get out, get out” they chanted, and threw shoes at a caricature of the secretary.
In Japan, Clinton said the Obama administration would make a “concerted effort to present a different position to the Islamic world.”
She said it would require breaking through anti-US rhetoric to show how the United States has in the last two decades fought on behalf of Muslims. She cited wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The Bush administration also tried to reach out to Muslims with similar arguments, but the Obama team has adopted a more conciliatory tone, sought to engage US foes and moved to close Guantanamo Bay prison — for many a symbol of the excesses of the US-led “war on terror.”
Clinton also pointedly speaks of a struggle rather than “war.”
In his inauguration speech on January 20, Obama vowed to seek a “new way forward” with the Muslim world “based on mutual interest and respect.”
Faced with a set of daunting challenges across the Muslim world — from the Palestinian territories to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — Obama called for a fresh balance in using diplomatic, military and other forms of power.
The first black US president has promised to make a major speech in a Muslim capital, but the State Department has not said whether Clinton would lay the groundwork for an Obama trip to Indonesia.
The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, Obama was raised in Hawaii and moved to Indonesia when he was six after his divorced mother remarried an Indonesian.
Indonesia has had a love-hate relationship with the United States since the 1960s, marked by US support for military dictator Suharto, who was ousted in 1998.
She will visit Indonesia until Thursday, when she will head to South Korea before visiting China from Friday through Sunday.