Former President Obama Calls for Tolerance in Indonesia

In a speech delivered Saturday in Jakarta, the former US President Barack Obama reminded Indonesians – and indeed the entire world – of a time, not long ago, when Americans had a president.

The speech Obama delivered to a conference of the Indonesian diaspora in Jakarta laid out, just between the lines, a stunning rebuke to Donald Trump's coarse presidency without ever mentioning the tweeter-in-chief.

Instead, in words that were eloquent and firm, he reminded those in attendance and anyone listening abroad that politics can be more than a parade of vulgarity. He spoke of tolerance, moderation, inclusion and the strength of ideas, a presidency that encouraged tolerance.

“We start seeing a rise in sectarian politics, we start seeing a rise in an aggressive kind of nationalism, we start seeing both in developed and developing countries an increased resentment about minority groups and the bad treatment of people who don’t look like us or practice the same faith as us,” he said, the Paris climate agreement as a promising strategy the world was willing to undertake.

“In Paris, we came together around the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change,” Obama said. Although President Trump withdrew from the accord, Obama said the agreement “will still give our children a fighting chance.”

In some ways the message was a direct hit on Indonesia, which has been suffering its own bouts of sectarian discord in recent months, driven by a bitter election for the governorship of Jakarta that saw the incumbent, an ethnic Chinese Christian and perhaps the most effective and honest civil official in the country's history, defeated and then imprisoned on trumped up blasphemy charges wielded by Islamic fundamentalists.

Beyond Indonesia, however, Obama skewered the politics of hate peddled by populists like Trump by painting a picture of a world in which major challenges could be met with reason and ideas.

The speech made few headlines precisely because it was so reasoned and if that is Obama's failing, it is one we can live with.

“If we don’t stand up for tolerance and moderation and respect for others,” he said, “if we begin to doubt ourselves and all that we have accomplished, then much of the progress that we have made will not continue. What we will see is more and more people arguing against democracy, we will see more and more people who are looking to restrict freedom of the press, and we’ll see more intolerance, more tribal divisions, more ethnic divisions, and religious divisions and more violence.”

It might have felt good to have Obama call out Trump as a bully and a fool and a man so thoroughly unprepared for office that he should by all rights be hounded back to wherever he came from by stave-wielding mobs. But that would accomplish little and it isn’t and wasn’t Obama’s style. Obama's presence here in a country where he lived for four years as a child was also a stark demonstration that where Trump is an isolated buffoon, Obama is a world leader for good reason.

Although he never directly mentioned Trump, he did make a point about the need to accept different religions, using his Indonesian-born Muslim stepfather as an example.

“My stepfather was raised a Muslim but he respected Hindus and he respected Buddhists and he respected Christians,” he noted. “If you are strong in your own faith then you should not be worried about someone else’s faith.”

It is going to take considerable moxie for the world to return to the kind of tolerance Obama advocated and that the current president has discarded. In Indonesia, where politics is steering extremism as much as it is in the US, in Europe where jihadis are pushing tolerance to the limit, leaders are needed to restrain the basest elements in society. In the new century, they seem few and far between, and Obama, one of the best, has departed from the scene.