JAKARTA: US Vice President Mike Pence will visit the largest mosque in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation — Indonesia — on Thursday, a symbolic gesture for the deputy in an administration accused of stoking Islamophobia.
Pence will tour the Istiqlal Mosque and hold a multi-faith dialogue during the first day of a visit to Jakarta, the White House said.
Pence’s visit represents the Trump administration’s most high-profile outreach to Muslims since coming to office and echoes a similar trip by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2010.
About 90 percent of Indonesia’s 255 million inhabitants are Muslim.
Since becoming president almost 100 days ago, Donald Trump has hosted leaders from majority-Muslim Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But his administration has also tried to ban travellers from several Muslim-majority nations, citing concerns about terrorism — an effort currently being challenged in US courts.
As a presidential candidate, Trump often appeared to flirt with the far right as he railed against “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Pence’s visit has been welcomed by his hosts, who said they hoped it reflected a shift in US attitudes to Islam.
Maruf Amin, the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, told Agence France-Presse: “The US is a big country, with major influence, so it should present itself as a country which is friendly to everyone.”
“Hopefully Pence’s visit indicates a change in attitude, at least that they are moving away from the stance that they don’t like Islam much.”
Adam Mulawarman, the Indonesian foreign ministry’s director of American affairs, said he believed “the visit to Istiqlal reflects the desire of the US to open itself to Islam, to engage in interfaith dialogue.”
Although Indonesia has long been held up as an example of inter-faith tolerance, religious intolerance has been rising in recent years, with a surge of attacks by Islamic hardliners on minorities.
Critics say the case of Jakarta’s Christian governor, who has been put on trial for blasphemy for allegedly insulting the Koran, has highlighted how religious freedoms are under threat.
On Wednesday, a Muslim challenger appeared to have bested the Christian incumbent in a religiously charged Jakarta gubernatorial election. The presumptive winner Anies Baswedan was accused of pandering to hardliners to win votes.
Smoothing rough edges
Pence is currently on a tour of South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia that is aimed at smoothing some of the rougher edges of Trump’s rhetoric.
In South Korea and Japan, Pence played down protectionist declarations of “America first” and reaffirmed US treaty commitments to the security of the two countries as tensions rise over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
But analysts say Pence’s Muslim outreach in Indonesia, while welcomed, will likely not be enough to assuage fears that the Trump administration is anti-Islam.
“President Trump’s hostile pronouncements on Islam and Muslims have done considerable damage to his reputation in the Islamic world. It would take more than a visit to repair the damage,” said Fawaz Gerges, an expert on the Middle East and Islam from the London School of Economics.
In Jakarta, Pence will also meet President Joko Widodo who has been trying to reform the Indonesian economy and boost infrastructure projects.
That agenda could provide some common ground. The Trump administration also wants to slash red tape and introduce a plan to fix America’s creaking infrastructure.
According to a White House foreign policy advisor, Pence will also praise Widodo’s “leadership on counter-terrorism”. Indonesia has long struggled with Islamic militancy.
The talks are also likely to touch upon tensions in the South China Sea after recent clashes between Indonesian and Chinese vessels in waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands on the fringes of the disputed waters. AFP