- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday urged Indonesia’s more than 200 million Muslims to join the United States in promoting religious tolerance and understanding around the world, because their country has the right credentials of moderation and democracy.

Miss Rice, who visited an Islamic school in the capital, Jakarta, repeatedly assured her hosts that the United States respects Islam, hoping that the nation with the largest Muslim population would help improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world.

“Indonesia has a very big role to play as an example of what moderation and tolerance and inclusiveness of a society can be,” the secretary told reporters as she began a two-day visit to the world’s third-largest democracy.

“You can be Muslim or Catholic or Protestant or Jewish and still be a citizen of a single country,” she said. “That seems to me to be the most important message that could be delivered to the world, and in many ways, Indonesia is in a very strong position to do so, not only because they talk about it, but because they live it every day.”

Suspicion of U.S. intentions has been running high in the Muslim world because of the war in Iraq and, more recently, U.S. opposition to letting a Dubai firm take control of terminals at six American ports. But most Indonesians have a generally positive attitude about America — especially after the prompt U.S. response to the 2004 tsunami — even if they dislike some Bush administration policies in the Middle East.

Miss Rice said there is miscommunication between Americans and Indonesians on those issues.

Washington’s support for Israel and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often mistaken for disrespecting Islam, she said.

“I would hope that while some of the policies we pursue may not always be popular, there is an understanding that we have a deep and abiding respect for the Indonesian people, for their various faiths and desire to see their great democracy prosper,” she said.

Miss Rice’s visit drew hundreds of Islamic hard-line demonstrators outside the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy. The crowd was far smaller than last week’s rally of about 5,000 people, who demanded that U.S. troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan and called President Bush a terrorist and a colonialist.

Almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s 242 million people are Muslims. Its population is larger than that of all other Southeast Asian countries combined.

Miss Rice said Americans too often have misperceptions of Islamic schools and education.

“It was remarkable to visit the madrassa today. Americans have a certain image in mind when they hear the word ‘madrassa,’” she said.

“I wish Americans could see this madrassa, this Islamic school, because here you had young boys and girls in their traditions, but learning the national curriculum … and I’m sure they are going to be young people who will be very capable in the world, and they are going to carry attitudes about tolerance of other people,” she said.

In 2004, the United States pledged $157 million over five years for its Indonesia Education Initiative. At the Makmurian Islamic School yesterday, Miss Rice announced an additional $8.5 million grant “for a program to bring ‘Sesame Street’ to the schools of Indonesia.”

Robin Bush of the Asia Foundation in Jakarta commended the Bush administration for recognizing that Indonesia’s Muslims are very different from those in the Middle East.

“The vast majority of Indonesia’s Muslims are moderate and supportive of democracy,” she said. “In fact, most democratic reforms are spearheaded by Muslim leaders.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also raised the issue of misperceptions of Islam in the West during his meeting with Miss Rice, a senior State Department official said.

The secretary praised Gen. Yudhoyono’s efforts in fighting terrorism and deeply rooted corruption at the highest levels of Indonesia’s government, and she stressed the importance of improving the economy, the senior official said.

The Bush administration is trying to build up Indonesia as Southeast Asia’s dominant player. In November, the U.S. ended restrictions on military cooperation over the objections of human rights groups that question the military’s record.

Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia, recently visited Indonesian islands considered front lines in the war on terrorism in eastern Asia.

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