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Sunday, October 23, 2005

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Indonesian Students Skeptical About U.S. Policy, but Not America
By RAYMOND BONNER


JAKARTA, Indonesia, Oct. 21 - President Bush's designated hitter for America's image in the Muslim world, Karen P. Hughes, and 16 students from Indonesia's largest Islamic university shared a stage here on Friday morning. But that was about all they shared.

Ms. Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy, began by inviting the students to tell her what they were studying and what their hopes were.

The students wanted no such small talk. They wanted to talk about Iraq and America's role in the world, offering comments, opinions and questions marked by charges that the United States was "two-faced" and "unfair."

"Why does America always act as if they are the policeman of the world?" asked 20-year-old Barikatul Hikmah, wearing a black-and-white-striped head scarf, bright yellow pumps and blue jeans.

The question was met with applause from the 100 or so students in the audience.

"America feels an obligation to stand up for our founding values," Ms. Hughes answered. She quickly added that the United States was not trying to impose its system on any country, and that the values of human rights and freedom were not only American, but universal.

This is the second major foray into Islamic territory for Ms. Hughes. Last month, she met with groups in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, and by and large, Islam here is moderate and tolerant. Indonesians bristle at the oft-held view from abroad that it is a country of Islamic extremists. To be sure, there is a fundamentalist element that would like to impose Islamic law, but it is small and, Indonesians argue, not unlike evangelical Christians in the United States.

The students who shared the stage with Ms. Hughes were told they could ask any questions, "even tough questions," said 20-year old Supenih, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. She was carrying a translated copy of "Power and Terror" by Noam Chomsky, the fierce critic of American foreign policy, which she politely tucked away before taking a seat near Ms. Hughes.

"Stop the war in Iraq," Ms. Supenih said when she got a chance to speak on the stage. "Who are the terrorists?" she asked, suggesting Mr. Bush was, because of the war. There was applause in the audience.

But Ms. Hughes said there was a difference between terrorists who have vowed to kill all Americans, Jews and even moderate Muslims, and the democratically elected leader of a country who goes to war to protect his country's Constitution.

"I want you all to come to America," Ms. Hughes said, ending the dialogue to applause that was almost too brief even to be called polite.

Meeting with foreign correspondents afterward, Ms. Hughes said she was not surprised by the students' views. In their strong opposition to the war in Iraq, they were much like university students in the United States, she said.

The students made clear that they distinguish between Americans as individuals, whom they like, and America as a country, where they want to go, as opposed to American foreign policy, which they abhor.

Ms. Supenih, the Chomsky reader, said she wanted to become an English teacher. Why English? "I care for my brothers and sisters in Indonesia," she said. Most reference books are in English, she said, and "America is the center for study."

Would she like to go to America? "Of course," she said, her eyes brightening. "That's my dream."

They never learn
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