JAKARTA, KOMPAS.com - US First Lady Michelle Obama was a picture of modest elegance as she visited Southeast Asia’s biggest mosque with her husband on Wednesday, a day after an Indonesian minister had expressed reluctance to shake her hand.
The much-anticipated visit to the Istiqlal Mosque in central Jakarta was one of the last stops on Obama’s twice-postponed visit to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
Grand Imam Haji Mustafa Ali Yaqub showed the Obamas around the massive domed structure, which was still being built when a young Barack lived in the nearby suburb of Menteng as a child in the late 1960s.
He explained its history and architecture — it was designed by a Christian — and impressed Obama with the story of how the caretakers donate the mosque’s parking lot to the neighbouring Catholic cathedral on Christmas day.
“That’s an example of the kind of cooperation” between religions in Jakarta, Obama told the following White House press pack, in keeping with his desire to uphold Indonesia as a model of religious tolerance.
Michelle wore a silky flowing chartreuse pant suit and beige head-covering adorned with gold beads and a black fringe. She also wore thin lace socks, having removed her shoes to enter the mosque.
The First Lady had become the unwitting focus of a raging online debate Tuesday about religious tolerance and women’s rights in the country of 240 million people, 80 percent of whom are Muslims.
Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring, a conservative Muslim who refuses to touch women he is not related to, had messaged his thousands of Twitter followers that he had reluctantly shaken hands with her at a formal reception.
“I tried to prevent it with my two hands but Mrs Michelle moved her hands too close to me, then we touched,” he wrote, sparking a firestorm of condemnation on the hyperactive Indonesian blogosphere.
Video footage of the meeting suggested otherwise, showing Sembiring reaching out to shake Michelle’s hand like the other dignitaries. Later Tuesday night, while Obama held talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the first lady was treated to a demonstration of the dying process involved in traditional Indonesian batik fashion.
Imam Yaqub told AFP that during their talk at the mosque, Barack Obama — who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 — had asked for his help in “bringing peace to the world”. “
I said to Obama ’You play an important role in bringing peace to the world’ and he said ’Insya Allah’ (God willing) ... that’s an important role but I can’t do it alone’,” the imam said.
In a keynote speech to thousands of boisterous students at the national university, Obama said the moqsue was a symbol of Indonesia’s “inspiring” message of inclusiveness.
“Earlier today, I visited the Istiqlal mosque — a place of worship that was still under construction when I lived in Jakarta,” he said.
“Istiqlal means independence, and its construction was in part a testament to the nation’s struggle for freedom. Moreover, this house of worship for many thousands of Muslims was designed by a Christian architect.
“Islam flourishes, but so do other faiths. Development is strengthened by an emerging democracy. Ancient traditions endure, even as a rising power is on the move.”
Michelle Obama returned to the United States on Wednesday while the US president travelled to South Korea to attend an economic summit starting Thursday.