Bush urges pluralism in Indonesia

During brief visit, he talks to Muslims critical of U.S. policy

October 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DENPASAR, Indonesia - President Bush injected himself directly into Indonesia's struggle between democratization and Islamic fundamentalism yesterday, telling the country during a lightning visit that peace and economic growth in Asia depend on its success "as a pluralistic and democratic state."

Bush's goal was to show support for President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who faces an election next year, and to engage with Muslim moderates who, in nearly an hour of conversation with the president, were sharply critical of his policies toward the Middle East and Iraq.

"There was kind of a sense that Americans believe that Muslims are terrorists," Bush said later aboard his airplane, recounting the discussion for reporters. He said he made "it very clear that I didn't feel that way and Americans don't feel that way."

The Indonesian moderates, who had been selected by the U.S. Embassy here, challenged Bush about statements made last week by Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and war fighting. Boykin had likened the battle against Islamic terrorists to war against "Satan," and said at evangelical gatherings that Muslims worship an "idol" and not "a real God."

Bush is deeply unpopular in Indonesia, and even Megawati, while greeting him warmly, kept some political distance, noting in their televised joint appearance that "we do not always share common perspective." A recent Pew opinion poll showed that 15 percent of Indonesians held a positive view of the United States in June, down from 61 percent in mid-2002.

The Secret Service was clearly concerned about Bush's visit here, and Bush's three-hour stopover in the world's most-populous Muslim nation was restricted to Bali, the overwhelmingly Hindu resort island. He traveled less than a mile from where Air Force One was parked on the airport tarmac.

Bush tried to make the best out of what many Indonesians seemed to regard as an awkward visit. In a short speech, he dwelt on what he called the common values of the United States and Indonesia: religious diversity and respect for liberty.

"Your national motto, `Unity in diversity,' sounds a lot like our own `Out of many, one,'" Bush said.

"Americans hold a deep respect for the Islamic faith, which is professed by a growing number of my own citizens," Bush said. "We know Islam is fully compatible with liberty, tolerance and progress. We see the proof in your country."

Bush came armed with an offer of $157 million in U.S. support for Indonesian education over the next six years. American officials here said the money would go chiefly to primary schools, including Islamic boarding schools.

But Bush, speaking on his plane, said the moderates he met were concerned about how the money would be spent. The president said it was money to help basic education develop. But others in the administration note that the intent is not entirely apolitical.

"The fundamentalists are pouring money into these schools, and we have to help counter them," a senior official on the trip said.

Bush also said the United States would support the first direct presidential election in Indonesia, which he said would be "an interesting exercise in democracy."

Bush never explicitly mentioned Indonesia's role as the base for Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group that has been held responsible by the United States for the bombing of a Bali nightclub last year that killed more than 200 people. The group is blamed by the United States for the suicide bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in July.

The most interesting encounter of the day was between Bush and the representatives of Muslim, Hindu and Christian groups here. They included Hasyim Muzadi, the chairman of the largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, with an estimated membership of 40 million.

Muzadi said he told Bush that his Middle East policy unfairly favored Israel. Bush, recounting the conversation later aboard Air Force One, said he responded that "our policy is tilted toward peace" and said he discussed his thoughts about the creation of a Palestinian state.

"There wasn't a lot of debate," Bush said. He said his interlocutors "all needed to say something," adding: "So I gave them all a time to speak, and I listened."

One, he said, accused him of deciding to invade Iraq long before the war began. Bush said he responded that "a process had gone under way before I made the decision to use military force, that the world has spoken before about Saddam Hussein."

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