JAKARTA—Barack Hussein Obama Jr. spent part of his youth here in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
The entrance foyer to his elementary school has a photograph, 2 metres by 1.3 metres, of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Ten steps into the crowded rectangular courtyard and you can see his old homeroom, adjacent to the stairway leading to the second floor mosque, where he studied Islam.
He had a different name then, Barry Soetoro, after his stepfather.
His mother, the Kansas-born Ann Dunham, first married a Kenyan, Barack Hussein Obama. Her second husband was the Indonesian Lolo Soetoro, with whom she moved here in 1967.
Obama was enrolled in a Catholic primary school, and then for his Grades 3 and 4 in what is now called the Model Primary School, a much-sought after public school in an elite leafy neighbourhood.
Three of his teachers have said he was enrolled as a Muslim. In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he mentions his Qur'an studies here.
A classmate of his in Jakarta has said that Obama used to wear a sarong and accompany his father to the neighbourhood mosque, but that his mother used to go to church.
All of which sounds about right for a mixed marriage. But in post-9/11 America, any association with Islam can be toxic for a presidential candidate. So his detractors are emphasizing it and he is running from it.
When Fox Television claimed in January that he had attended a "madrassa," his office said: "Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and is a committed Christian who attends church in Chicago."
But in a later statement, it hedged, saying that he has "never been a practising Muslim." And his stepsister, Maya Soetoro, felt compelled to say: "My father never went to prayer services except for big communal events. I am absolutely certain that he did not go to services every Friday."
How observant Obama himself was, or if he was a Muslim at all, is murky. With the school records missing, eaten by bugs, one has to rely on people's shifting memories.
Tine Hahiyari, a retired teacher — who told Los Angeles Times correspondent Paul Watson that Obama was registered as a Muslim — tells my interpreter that she can no longer recall what he was.
Ahmad Solichin, a teacher, tells me that another retired teacher told him that Obama was enrolled as a Christian.
Headmaster Kuwadiyanto (he has only one name) and vice-principal Hardi Priyono are amused by the controversy and the parade of Americans to the school — three members of the U.S. embassy here and nine visiting reporters, so far.
The school is not a madrassa. But the majority of its 475 students being Muslim, the biggest religion class is in the mosque. The day of my visit being a Friday, the girls are wearing the hijab and the boys the kufi skull cap, and both attend the noon prayers.
The 70 Christian kids go down the corridor to a chapel, and the lone Hindu boy is taken to a temple.
Rather than obfuscating his past, this is what Obama should be saying: "I am a proud Christian, as is my wife, Michelle Robinson. Both my father and stepfather were Muslims, and I myself had a brush with Islam in the Far East. That's no crime. In fact, it'll be a huge asset for the next president, who'll have to clean up the mess left behind by George W. Bush."
Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday in World and Sunday in the A-section. Contact him at hsiddiq@ thestar.ca
© 2007 The Toronto Star