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Obama trip to 'Muslim' Indonesia: Why stereotypes don't work

The Obama trip to Indonesia had the potential to go beyond praise for that country as a model of Islamic moderation. Indonesia is much more diverse than the label 'Muslim' implies.

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President Obama’s brief trip to Indonesia has served to highlight America’s own problematic view of “the Muslim world” – that relying on stereotypes of Islam doesn’t work for peace in this post-9/11 era.

Indonesia is a prime example. Yes, it is the world’s most populous “Muslim country.” Most of its 240 million people adhere to variations of Islamic beliefs to some degree. Mosques are a common sight and Islamic rituals are largely observed. And Mr. Obama will continue to hold up this Southeast Asian giant as a model for other Muslim lands because of its fight against terrorist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front.

But generalities about a “Muslim Indonesia” can backfire – just as any non-Muslim who ever talks to a Muslim must first treat that person as a unique individual. A nation this large (17,000 islands) with six official religions cannot be pegged in a general description and treated solely as Muslim. Indonesian leaders bristle at the way the United States slips into simplistic labels. “We are not an Islamic country,” Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says flatly.

Obama must know this from his childhood on Indonesia’s main island of Java, where he lived for four years with his American mother, Ann Dunham, and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro.

For thousands of years, this corner of Asia has seen waves of religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity – become mixed with ancient beliefs and mysticism that continue to run deep in the culture. One need only read the classic book “The Religion of Java” by famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz to be humbled about easy typecasting of Indonesia.

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