Perhaps the most telling moment so far of President Obama’s overseas trip to Southeastern Asia occurred while he was addressing students at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India. During a question and answer period which followed the President’s remarks, a female student asked Obama’s views about jihad. Here is a portion of the President Obama’s reply to that question:
Well, the phrase jihad has a lot of meanings within Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations. But I will say that, first, Islam is one of the world’s great religions. And more than a billion people who practice Islam, the overwhelming majority view their obligations to their religion as ones that reaffirm peace and justice and fairness and tolerance. I think all of us recognize that this great religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted to justify violence towards innocent people that is never justified.
And so I think one of the challenges that we face is how do we isolate those who have these distorted notions of religious war and reaffirm those who see faiths of all sorts — whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew or any other religion, or your don’t practice a religion — that we can all treat each other with respect and mutual dignity, and that some of the universal principles that Gandhi referred to — that those are what we’re living up to, as we live in a nation or nations that have very diverse religious beliefs.
If one is to accept President Obama’s argument that jihad “has a lot of meanings within Islam and is subject to different interpretations,” then one must wonder what Obama thinks about its meaning and interpretation in certain parts of Indonesia. After all, Obama did spend four years of his childhood in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. As a presidential candidate, Obama made the argument that his time in Indonesia rendered him more qualified on questions of foreign policy than either Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain. Based on those formative experiences, it would not be unreasonable then to conclude that the President maintains a keen interest in Indonesia’s state of affairs and is aware of ongoing developments there.
So as President Obama proceeds to the country he once called home for the next leg of his South Asian tour, one wonders if anyone will ask him what he thinks of that meaning and interpretation of jihad which sanctions death by stoning against those who commit adultery. To be precise, will anyone ask him his views of the stoning law that was unanimously passed in the Indonesian province of Aceh in September 2009? Some of the other sanctions covered under the law in Aceh are public caning for activities such as non-marital sex, drinking, and gambling. Anyone caught engaging in homosexual behavior is also subject not only to caning but a minimum of eight years in prison.
Aceh’s harsh sanctions against homosexuality are noteworthy when one considers what President Obama had to say about Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexual laws. Last February, while addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., the President called the East African nation’s plans against homosexuals (which does include a death penalty provision) “odious.” As of this writing, however, the Ugandan legislation has not been enacted although it is believed the law will eventually pass.
However, the sanctions against homosexuality are the law of the land in Aceh. So too is the death penalty for adultery. Yet at present President Obama has volunteered no public comment and in the absence of any public comment it is only fair to ask President Obama if he also find the laws of Aceh to be “odious.” Or does the President hold Muslim countries and Christian countries to different standards? Does President Obama believe the legislators in Aceh engaged in extremism? Or does the President believe they are just fulfilling their obligation to their religion? Does President Obama think the Gandhian universal principles of respect and mutual dignity apply in Aceh? Or is Aceh one of those places where the President says it is not for him to meddle?
Or put another way, will President Obama leave Indonesia no stone unturned?