Nothing Extreme About Indonesian School Attended by Obama


Jan. 25, 2007 — -- An ABC News producer and crew visited the school in Jakarta, Indonesia, attended by Sen. Barack Obama in his youth and found it to be a normal government public school without even a hint of the extremist elements reported by various conservative news outlets in the last week.

"These rumors about our school being an Islamic extremist school are completely incorrect," assistant headmaster Akhmad Solihim told ABC News. "We are a regular public school."

Solihim confirmed that Obama attended the school as a child, before he transferred to a local Catholic school. The school featured both boy and girl students, basketball, and classes in many subjects. A class in Islam was matched by one in Christianity, complete with teachings from the New Testament, a sign featuring the Lord's Prayer and a painting of Jesus. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. One student had a SpongeBob SquarePants bookbag.

"Here we learn mathematics, science and social studies," one sixth grader, 11-year-old Rangga, told ABC News.

This week, sensing a need to respond to the untrue allegation repeated in conservative media outlets that he had been educated in an Indonesia madrassa, Obama and his staff aggressively launched a campaign to debunk the story, perhaps indicating a fear that some may believe it.

Some of his advisers have invoked lessons learned from the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., which waited several weeks to respond to questionable charges against his service in Vietnam launched by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

"When I was six, I attended an Indonesian public school where a bunch of the kids were Muslim, because the country is 90 percent Muslim," the Democratic presidential hopeful told ABC's Chicago affiliate WLS-TV. "The notion that somehow, at the age of 6 or 7, I was being trained for something other than math, science and reading, is ludicrous."

Obama described the allegation as indicative of the "climate of smear" associated with presidential campaigns and called on the press to make sure "stories are substantiated."

Obama defended his education at "Sekolah Dasar Negeri 04," which roughly translates as government elementary school No. 4 in Indonesia, where he moved at the age of 6 after his mother married an Indonesian man. After two years at the government elementary school, Obama transferred to a Catholic school.

The false coloring of Obama's early education gained considerable steam during a "Fox and Friends" round table on Jan. 19, 2006. Host Steve Doocy said that Obama spent "the first decade of his life raised by his Muslim father as a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa." It is almost impossible to tabulate how many false claims are in that sentence.

Doocy went on to colorfully "define" madrassas as "financed by Saudis, they teach the religion that pretty much hates us. The big question: Was that on the curriculum back then?"

The round table was discussing a since-discredited story that ran in Insight Magazine entitled "Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background." The story cited unnamed sources that claimed that the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat who has announced her candidacy for president, was looking into whether Obama's Indonesian elementary school was a "madrassa" that "espous[ed] Wahhabism, a form of radical Islam."

Clinton's campaign said there was absolutely no truth to the magazine's claim.

"We have no connection to this story and think it's deplorable," said Phil Singer, a Clinton campaign spokesman. "It's an attack on both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama."

The story seems to have started with Insight magazine, then bounced to Fox News Channel, then to myriad other conservative media outlets including the popular Rush Limbaugh radio program. Often hosts repeating the false charges did so while bemoaning the notion that the Clinton campaign was investigating Obama's past, a charge that remains unproven and unsubstantiated.

Some political observers wondered if there was a political element to the Obama pushback; that, in addition to shutting down the false story, Obama strategists sought to rally the liberal base by painting their candidate as a victim of conservative news outlets, much in the same way the Bush White House has sought to rally his base by slamming the New York Times.

Obama's representatives have stressed the senator's Christianity.

"To be clear, Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and is a committed Christian," said Obama's communications director Robert Gibbs in a statement Wednesday.

An ABC News poll from last September indicated that 46 percent of Americans express an unfavorable opinion of Islam. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll from last summer indicated that 54 percent of the American people would not vote for a Muslim for president.

Obama's autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," details the freshman senator's early life, including how his parents a secular Muslim named Barack Hussein Obama Sr. and a secular Christian Ann Dunham, who lived in Hawaii -- divorced when he was only 2.

When Obama was 6, his mother remarried Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian oil company manager, and the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama's sister was born. In "Dreams from My Father," Obama writes that like "many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths."

When he was 10, Obama moved back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents and attend the elite Punahou School.

Obama addressed faith in public life at a church last summer.

"I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just 2, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist," he said. "My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I."

Obama eventually became a devout Christian and member of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago.

Dina Antonio in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Sheila Evans in Washington contributed to this report.

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