First lady’s handshake with conservative Muslim raises Indonesian eyebrows

Brett Michael Dykes

Indonesia's pious information minister, Tifatul Sembiring, is in hot water for touching the hand of First Lady Michelle Obama, in what he describes as forced contact. The politician flaunts his conservatism as a Muslim and claims to avoid touching women who aren't family members, the Associated Press reports.

Indonesia -- which has the world's largest Islamic population, the vast majority moderate -- had been debating how to handle encounters between the first lady and observant Muslim officials far in advance of the Obamas' arrival in the country Monday.

[Video: Obamas bring their dance moves to India]

Sembiring sought to deflect criticism by claiming Tuesday's skin-to-skin contact was all Michelle Obama's fault. "I tried to prevent [being touched] with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me [so] we touched," Tifatul Sembiring explained on his Twitter page (according to a translation provided in the AP report).

Some local observers laughed at that idea, and one female reporter gleefully said he wouldn't be able to avoid shaking her hand anymore, AP reported.

Video of the moment does seem to contradict Sembiring's characterization of the encounter -- but you be the judge. The video is below:

Sembiring was part of a group of Indonesian dignitaries who greeted the Obamas in a receiving line when they arrived in Jakarta.

Most Indonesian Muslims hew to more moderate versions of the faith that permit casual contact between the sexes. As a result, some Indonesians have assailed Sembiring's rationale for the handshake, suggesting that it's an example of  conservative Muslim hypocrisy to excuse the sort of conduct that he readily castigates in others. The minister has blamed natural disasters on moral failings and has joked about AIDS, the Associated Press reports.

Regional handshake kerfuffle aside, the visit is a big deal in Indonesia, where President Obama spent much of his childhood. According to the Associated Press, "Indonesians gathered around television sets across the country to watch the American president touch down. Children at the school he attended practiced a song dedicated to him just in case he visited."

[Related: Threat to pull Obama from India talks after press dispute]

In public statements, Obama has likewise stressed the importance of the visit for him.

"It's wonderful to be here, although I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child as the president, it's a little disorientating," he told reporters Tuesday morning.

The president and first lady will spend roughly 24 hours in the country, hoping to improve ties with the Muslim world and open up opportunities for American businesses.

Click image to see photos of Michelle Obama touring India and Indonesia

AP/Adi Weda

But Obama definitely appears to have his work cut out for him. Over the past several days, the presidential visit has sparked widespread protests from Muslims in the region.

[Related: Obama makes long-awaited return to Indonesia]

"We don't see the differences between Obama and Bush -- they both oppress Muslims, they both have blood on their hands," Ismail Yusanto, a spokesman for a Muslim group in Indonesia, told CNN. "That's why we reject Obama, and we don't believe that he's reaching out to Muslims."

(Top photo taken from Tifadul Sembiring's Facebook page)

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