Barack Obama and revival of American values
Muhamad Ali , Riverside, CA | Wed, 01/21/2009 10:58 AM | Opinion
Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency of the United States of America is a historic moment for Indonesians as much as for Americans and others around the world. Barack Obama has been shaped by history and is making history.
To me, Barack Obama is the second person I become proud of whom I can personally and intellectually relate to after Muhammad Ali, a Muslim African-American boxer.
As an Indonesian, born and raised in Indonesia and who studied abroad for a doctoral degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and as an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, I have become increasingly in love with America as much as with Indonesia. America has its shared values. And so does Indonesia.
The greater challenge for America and Indonesia is how to revive those values and who can lead the nation in the right direction.
During my five-year residence while studying in Hawaii I found the people incredibly diverse and hospitable. I volunteered in the international student’s organization as well as in the Indonesian community. I learned that bridging differences was the key to resolving miscommunication, prejudice, and hatred between people.
I enjoyed teaching a workshop on Islam to teachers at the Punahou School, which Obama attended, because we learned so much from each other’s cultures.
I have become more aware that when we emphasize the common values, problems and issues will be easier to handle.
I knew his half sister Maya Soetoro Ng before I knew her brother as a senator. Maya Soetoro is a humble, straightforward and intelligent friend, before and even after her brother’s candidacy.
She is very proud of her Indonesian heritage, loves Indonesian food and is always excited to talk about Indonesia. Barack Obama sometimes speaks a few Indonesian words with her.
Making jokes about names was fun when Arabic names became an issue, especially after 9/11.
In interviews, Barack Hussein Obama admitted that his name had become a liability after 9/11 and the Bush administration’s war on terror, as many associate Obama with Arabs and Islam.
Obama often jokes with his friends about his name, as I often do with friends and others.
Obama’s spiritual faith is even more revealing. In his autobiography Dreams from My Father, he saw his Kenyan father as being a Muslim “thinking religion to be so much superstition”, and this influences one of his spiritual life stages.
On his Indonesian step-father, Lolo Soetoro, Barack Obama wrote, “like many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths…” His memory of his Indonesian stepfather was that of accommodative Islam and tolerant religiosity shaped by Indonesian syncretism.
Obama felt his mother’s “secularism”, but his mother for him was “the most spiritually awakened person” he had ever known, having instincts of kindness, charity, love, discipline, empathy and hard work. Obama recalled his time in schools in Indonesia.
“In Indonesia, I had spent two years at a Muslim school, two years at a Catholic school. In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies. My mother wasn’t overtly concerned.
“Be respectful,’ she’d said.” His spiritual journey did not end there. He became a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago which has since transformed his spiritualism and faith.
As an American, with a diverse religious, cultural, national and racial background, Obama believes in what others would call a civil religion. Obama said that Americans should acknowledge the power of faith and its diversity in the lives of Americans.
“Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers,” wrote Obama in his The Audacity of Hope. In speeches he delivers, he would end with “May God bless America.”
More importantly, Obama advocates an active and authentic faith to turn American back to its core values inherited from the founding fathers and shaped by influential figures.
He recognizes faith not for faith; it is for community empowerment. Obama’s faith has been and continues to be shaped by problems and challenges facing America.
Barack Obama’s journey was that of not only dreams, but of clarity in how to fulfill these dreams: Perseverance, discipline and hard work. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln in particular have long inspired him as dreamers of their times, and as role models for the struggle toward racial justice, freedom, equality and citizenship rights. King’s speech “I Have a Dream” shapes and echoes Obama’s rise to presidency.
“All men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” King said powerfully. And that was how Obama became inspired.
The challenges Obama’s administration are facing now are greater than the time of King’s and any previous American presidents: Two wars to finish, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to mediate, economic crises to navigate, healthcare and education to improve.
A great lesson to learn however is not so much about his sound judgment of the details of each
problem and challenge, but his repeated attempts to turn to American values.
Barack Obama demonstrates an inspiring intelligence, a calm and cool personality, and great oratory skills. Obama has brought many Americans of common values and common destiny together.
He believes that problems of injustice, the economic crisis, and the diminishing image of Americans in the world require a change of hearts and minds before anything else.
In cultivating American values, Obama puts the emphasis on education. For him, academic success is not enough without proper values and preparation for responsible citizenship.
Obama’s administration, for example, promises to encourage schools and parents to work together to establish expectations for student attendance, behavior, and homework, calling parents to turn off the TV and video games, and expect all students to engage in community service.
Moreover, in facing the challenges, Obama stresses a shared responsibility. “It is not about me, it is about you, all Americans,” he said. When he met the pilot who successfully landed a plane in trouble, he said, “If everyone does his job, we are going to be fine.” Everyone needs to serve the country. Everyone has to take the burden.
For Obama, politics, like science, depends on the ability to persuade one another of common aims based on a common reality. For him, it is to ensure that persuasion rather than violence or intimidation determines the political outcome.
Internationally, Obama has received worldwide support. His first speech during the campaign period in Berlin is perhaps one of the best speeches ever delivered.
“Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle,” he said. Trust is perhaps what the key value is but it is often missing in many international relationships.
In Berlin, Obama emphasized common humanity. “Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice: It is the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.” “That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.
“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand.
“The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrations; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”
If there is a crucial lesson for Indonesians to learn, Barack Obama’s successful rise to presidency shows that it is the people’s minds and hearts that should be transformed before anything else.
It is to revive American shared values in order to move forward. It is to have vision and hope, in turmoil and in peace. It is to have dreams and a clear path to follow.
Congratulations to President Barack H. Obama! And may God bless you (as your name means) and America, Indonesia, and all the people around the world!
The writer is assistant professor, Religious Studies Department, University of California, Riverside.