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As a child, Obama crossed a cultural divide in Indonesia

March 15, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — As a boy in Indonesia, Barack Obama crisscrossed the religious divide. At the local primary school, he prayed in thanks to a Catholic saint. In the neighborhood mosque, he bowed to Allah.

Having a personal background in both Christianity and Islam might seem useful for an aspiring U.S. president in an age when Islamic nations and radical groups are key national security and foreign policy issues. But a connection with Islam is untrod territory for presidential politics.

Obama's four years as a child in Indonesia underscore how dramatically his background differs from that of past presidential hopefuls, most of whom spent little, if any, time in other countries. No one knows how voters will react to a candidate with an early exposure to Islam, a religion that remains foreign to many Americans.

Obama's campaign aides have emphasized his strong Christian beliefs and downplayed any Islamic connection. The candidate was raised "in a secular household in Indonesia by his stepfather and mother," his chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said in a statement in January after false reports began circulating that Obama had attended a radical \o7madrasa\f7, or Koranic school, as a child.

"To be clear, Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian who attends the United Church of Christ in Chicago," Gibbs' Jan. 24 statement said. In a statement to The Times on Wednesday, the campaign offered slightly different wording, saying: "Obama has never been a practicing Muslim." The statement added that as a child, Obama had spent time in the neighborhood's Islamic center.

His former Roman Catholic and Muslim teachers, along with two people who were identified by Obama's grade-school teacher as childhood friends, say Obama was registered by his family as a Muslim at both of the schools he attended.

That registration meant that during the third and fourth grades, Obama learned about Islam for two hours each week in religion class.

The childhood friends say Obama sometimes went to Friday prayers at the local mosque. "We prayed but not really seriously, just following actions done by older people in the mosque. But as kids, we loved to meet our friends and went to the mosque together and played," said Zulfin Adi, who describes himself as among Obama's closest childhood friends.

The campaign's national press secretary, Bill Burton, said Wednesday that the friends were recalling events "that are 40 years old and subject to four decades of other information." Obama's younger sister, Maya Soetoro, said in a statement released by the campaign that the family attended the mosque only "for big communal events," not every Friday.

The sensitivity of Islam as a political issue was on display earlier this year with the false report that Obama had attended a radical \o7madrasa\f7 here. The report, which appeared initially on a conservative-oriented online magazine and then on a Fox News program, attributed the news to opposition researchers for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Both campaigns denied the story and accused conservative media outlets of trying to use the rumor to smear two Democratic hopefuls simultaneously.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic-majority country, has seen an upsurge of Islamic radicalism in the last few years. But during the 1960s, when Obama lived here, the country was known for a brand of Islam more open to the nonIslamic world than the austere versions preached in much of the Middle East. Even in the Mideast, political Islam was far less influential in the 1960s than it is today.

In his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama briefly mentions Koranic study and describes his public school, which accepted students of all religions, as "a Muslim school."

"In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies," Obama wrote. "My mother wasn't overly concerned. 'Be respectful,' she'd say. In the Catholic school, when it came time to pray, I would close my eyes, then peek around the room. Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and 30 brown children, muttering words."

Obama was born in Honolulu. When he was 2, his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., a Kenyan, and his Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham, separated and later divorced. Dunham later married Lolo Soetoro, who was a Muslim. In 1967, the family moved to Jakarta, where Obama lived from ages 6 to 10. People there knew him as Barry Soetoro.

Adi said he often visited the Soetoro family at their home, a small flat-roofed bungalow at 16 Haji Ramli St. Today, he runs an Internet cafe and purified water business from the same small Jakarta house where he grew up near Obama.

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