guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 9 November 2010 13.59 GMT
On the second stop of his 10-day Asian tour, Obama will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, visit the country’s largest mosque and deliver a speech supporting the country’s democratic progress.
But the US president’s visit to the world’s most populous Muslim nation will last for less than 24 hours, and may have to be cut even shorter because of concerns that volcanic ash from Mount Merapi could disrupt his flights.
Speaking at a joint press conference with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Obama said he thought the US was on “the right path” to a better relationship with the Muslim world, but acknowledged that some “misunderstandings and mistrust” were likely to remain.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we are building bridges and expanding our interactions with Muslim countries,” he said.
Obama’s visit to the Istiqlal mosque – the biggest in south-east Asia – is seen as his best chance to improve relations with the Muslim world since an address in Cairo last year.
Obama lived in Jakarta between the ages of six and 10, and his return has been eagerly awaited by many Indonesians. Speaking after his arrival, the president said the country had changed dramatically since he left in 1971
“Obviously, much has been made of the fact that this marks my return to where I lived as a young boy,” he said. “I will tell you, though, that I barely recognised it as I was driving down the streets. The only thing that was there when I first moved to Jakarta was Serena [a shopping mall]; now it’s one of the shorter buildings on the road.”
Obama moved to Jakarta from Hawai in 1967 after his mother, Ann Dunham, married his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro.
At Santo Fransiskus Asisi, the Catholic school Obama attended for three years , the children have compiled a book of letters, reflecting the pride Indonesians feel about him.
“I have many questions to you but the very important question is why aren’t you here in Indonesia? Why aren’t you visiting our school? I want to know your secret to be a president,” Cleo Latumahina, 10, wrote in English.
The headmaster, Yustina Amirah, said his students had hoped to meet the president, but as a trip to their school was not on the schedule, they would have to watch his speech on television. “They want to know if he still remembers Asisi school,” he said.
At the other school he attended, the government school on Besuki Street in Menteng, Obama’s photograph hangs in every classroom and his portrait adorns the assembly area. Next to it hangs a sign that reads: “It is good to be an important person but it is more important to be a good person.”
The school’s principal, Haji Hasimah, said the story of the boy known then as Barry was an inspiration to every child.
Although Obama ranked among the top of his class during his one year at the school, his teacher, Bapak Effendi, was surprised by her former student’s success. “When Barry’s old classmates told me in 2006 that he wanted to be president I didn’t believe he could,” Effendi said.
Widyanto Hendro, who sat next to Obama at the school, said that except for his appearance, “there wasn’t anything special about him”.
According to Hendro, Obama wanted “to be friends with everyone”.
Obama’s Indonesian friends have since recast memories of him into a statue, which sits outside the Besuki Street school. A young Obama holds a butterfly and at the base is a plaque that reads: “The future belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”
Yet for all the sentimentality of Obama’s return, the tour has been pared down to its diplomatic essentials. Meetings with Indonesian officials will focus on trade.
The US has embraced Indonesia as a moderate Muslim nation and partner in counter-terror efforts after attacks in Bali and elsewhere in the region.
But Islamist hardliners plan to protest against Obama’s visit. “Obama’s visit to the mosque is only lipstick to make something bad, look good,” said Muhammad Ismail Yusanto. His organisation, Hizbut Tahrir, says Obama has “blood on his hands” because of US involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the runup to the 2008 election, rightwingers in the US spread rumours that Obama attended a radical madrasa in Indonesia, and one in five Americans still believe he is secretly a Muslim.
Conspiracy theorists may find confirmation of their beliefs in the yellowing pages of the registration book of the Asisi school, which records the young Obama’s religion as Muslim.
The headmaster said children were assumed to follow their father’s religion, and Obama’s stepfather was Muslim.
Obama knew little of the religion, said his friend Hendro, who showed him the ropes at the largely Muslim Besuki Street school. “He didn’t know how to pray,” said Hendro. His mother stopped the practice when she heard about it.