Barack Obama has called on the world to stand up for tolerance, moderation and respect for others – warning that sectarian politics could lead to chaos and violence.
The former US president said some countries had adopted “an aggressive kind of nationalism” and “increased resentment of minority groups”, in a speech in Indonesia on Saturday that could be seen as a commentary on the US as well as Indonesia.
“It’s been clear for a while that the world is at a crossroads. At an inflection point,” Obama said, telling a Jakarta crowd stories of how much the capital had improved since he lived there as a child.
But he said that increased prosperity had been accompanied by new global problems, adding that as the world confronts issues ranging from inequality to terrorism, some countries – both developed and less developed – had adopted a more aggressive and isolationist stance.
“If we don’t stand up for tolerance and moderation and respect for others, if we begin to doubt ourselves and all that we have accomplished, then much of the progress that we have made will not continue,” he said.
“What we will see is more and more people arguing against democracy, we will see more and more people who are looking to restrict freedom of the press, and we’ll see more intolerance, more tribal divisions, more ethnic divisions, and religious divisions and more violence.”
Obama was born to a Kenyan father and an American mother, but after she married an Indonesian, the family moved to Jakarta in 1967 when he was six, and stayed for four years. The 44th US president made sure the crowd knew he could still speak some Indonesian.
He also spoke in direct support of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, whose own political movement has recently been rocked by the rise of intolerance in the world’s fourth most-populous country.
Widodo’s ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent widely known as Ahok was recently jailed while serving his term as Jakarta governor for making comments that were allegedly blasphemous.
Islamist groups had organised mass rallies to demand his imprisonment, and his sentence shocked his many liberal supporters around the country, leading analysts to question whether the stability of Indonesia’s plural democracy might be under threat from racial or religious tensions.
Obama called Widodo “a man of quiet but firm integrity and someone who sincerely wants to do what’s right for all Indonesians” and then made comments which a delighted crowd interpreted to be critical of how Ahok had been treated.
“My stepfather … was raised a Muslim but he respected Hindus and he respected Buddhists and he respected Christians,” he said, adding: “If you are strong in your own faith then you should not be worried about someone else’s faith.” The line earned raucous applause.
Obama never mentioned Donald Trump by name, but he chose a range of topics that could be seen to apply to politics in both Indonesia and the US, including fake news powered by social media, resentment, attacks on institutions, and ignorance of other peoples.
When asked about Trump’s exit from the Paris climate deal by Dino Patti Djalal, former ambassador to the US and organiser of the Indonesia Diaspora Conference, Obama sought to downplay the move’s impact.
“First of all, I think it’s important that even though the current US administration has signalled it is going to pull out, technically it’s not out yet,” he said. “Point two is that many of the changes that we locked in during my administration continue.”
Coming back to the overarching theme of “unity in diversity” – Indonesia’s official national motto – Obama warned again where a different path could lead.
“Let’s face it, if people do not show respect and tolerance, eventually you have war and conflict. Sooner or later societies break down.”