Obama madrassa myth debunked
JAKARTA, Indonesia - When Barack Obama was a boy here, he studied for three years at a religious school and prayed four times a day.
It was a Roman Catholic school. There, Obama was registered as student No. 203. "Yes, he prayed, because all the students here had to pray in the Catholic way--`in the name of the Father, [Son] and the Holy Spirit,' " recalled Obama's 1st-grade teacher, Israella Pareira Darmawan.
Attention on U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's childhood in Indonesia has so far focused on whether he was a Muslim and whether one of his schools was a fundamentalist Islamic madrassa.
Although his campaign has denied that Obama was a practicing Muslim, the "Islam" issue is not likely to go away soon for the presidential candidate. Some Americans link the religion with terrorism and see Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as being an alien place, a world away from the White House.
But initial reports have distorted the reality of the four years Obama spent in Indonesia, from 1967 to 1971. In fact, Obama's religious upbringing in Indonesia depended more on the conventions of the schools he attended than on any decision by him, his mother or his stepfather. When he was at a Catholic school for three years, he prayed as a Catholic.
When he was at a public school for a year, he learned about Islam.
Obama's stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, was much more of a free spirit than a devout Muslim, according to former friends and neighbors. And the school described as an Islamic madrassa in media reports actually was a public school, so progressive that teachers wore miniskirts and all students were encouraged to celebrate Christmas.
Interviews with dozens of former classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends show that Obama was not a regular practicing Muslim when he was in Indonesia, despite being listed as a Muslim on the registration form for the Catholic school, Strada Asisia, where he attended 1st through 3rd grades.
At the time, the school most likely registered children based on the religion of their fathers, said Darmawan, Obama's former teacher. Because Soetoro was a Muslim, Obama was listed as a Muslim, she said.
The enrollment form from the Catholic school, which has been cited as evidence that Obama was a Muslim in Indonesia, also was rife with errors. It listed Obama as an Indonesian, listed his previous school incorrectly and failed to list his mother, Ann, at all.
Mosque visits rare
Obama and his mother moved from Honolulu to Jakarta to join Soetoro in 1967, when Obama was 6. Here, Obama became "Barry Soetoro."
In their first neighborhood, Obama occasionally followed his stepfather to the mosque for Friday prayers, a few neighbors said. But Soetoro usually was too busy working, first for the Indonesian army and later for a Western oil company.
"Sometimes Lolo went to the mosque to pray, but he rarely socialized with people," said Fermina Katarina Sinaga, Obama's 3rd-grade teacher at the Catholic school, who lived near the family. "Rarely, Barry went to the mosque with Lolo."
Zulfan Adi, a former neighborhood playmate of Obama's who has been cited in news reports as saying Obama regularly attended Friday prayers with Soetoro, told the Tribune he was not certain about that when pressed about his recollections. He only knew Obama for a few months, during 1970, when his family moved to the neighborhood.
Soetoro, who died in 1987, was hardly the image of a pious Muslim, friends and family members say.
His nephew, Sonny Trisulo, 49, said Soetoro always liked women and alcohol. One of his health problems was a failing liver. "He loved drinking, was a smart and warm person, the naughtiest one in the family," Trisulo recalled.
In his autobiography, Obama said Soetoro followed the same kind of Islam as many Indonesians, "a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths," the kind of Islam that meant a man could absorb the powers of the animals he ate, such as tigers and snakes.
In late 1970, Obama's family moved to another neighborhood, and Obama enrolled in Public Elementary School Menteng No. 1, the school depicted by several news outlets as an Islamic madrassa, or boarding school. The school, founded in 1934 as a Dutch school, once catered only to Dutch children and a few elite Indonesians. In 1962 the Dutch handed the school over to the Indonesian government. At the time, the predominantly Muslim public school was considered one of the best in Jakarta.
On a recent visit, a magician performed for the students. The girls wore uniforms of knee-length skirts and no head scarves. Boys and girls shoved each other on the playground. Weekly religious classes are required for all students, whether Muslims, Christians or Hindus, under the government curriculum. A new shiny mosque is in the corner of the courtyard.
"The Muslims learn about Islam, prayer and religious activity," said Hardi Priyono, the vice principal for curriculum. "And for the Christians, during the religious class, they also have a special room teaching Christianity. It's always been like that. We are a public school. We have always been a public school."
When Obama attended 4th grade in 1971, Muslim children spent two hours a week studying Islam, and Christian children spent those two hours learning about the Christian religion.
At holidays, the school made a practice of teaching students about different religions. Students from all religions celebrated Christmas with a Christmas tree and carols. They celebrated the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha by handing out a sacrificed goat to the neighborhood's needy.
Photographs from the time show teachers in sleeveless dresses. The only woman who wore a head scarf was the Islamic religion teacher.
"I was really trendy, for example, no sleeves, and miniskirts," recalled Tine Hahiyari, 78, a Protestant who was the school's headmaster from 1972 to 1989. "When I taught sports, I wore shorts."
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