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S.E.A View

Indonesians worry that US is turning anti-Muslim

JAKARTA • Indonesians are right to be wary of US President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration, which seeks to temporarily ban travel and immigration by people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Indonesia is not one of the seven countries affected and it is wholly possible that Mr Trump will never issue a travel or immigration ban that directly affects Indonesians.

Even if Indonesians remain free to travel to the United States, the damage to US-Indonesia relations is substantial, with ripple effects - from top diplomatic levels to the grassroots. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has expressed Indonesia's "deep regret" at the executive order, pointing out that the policy, which discriminates on the basis of religion, hampers efforts for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

At the individual level, among Indonesians, there is a growing perception of Islamophobia and xenophobia in America.

Let me share a few examples of how average Indonesians have expressed their concerns. As an American researching education and literacy in Indonesia, I come into daily contact with people from different religious, socioeconomic, linguistic and ethnic groups. In the wake of last November's US presidential election, I have been repeatedly asked - in alleyways outside schools in north Jakarta, in cafes full of students - Is it true that President Trump and Americans are Islamophobic?

Other American researchers, teachers and visitors across Indonesia have also reported being asked this question - on campuses and in public spaces - and of course this question has only become more salient in the week since the travel ban was issued.

When Indonesian university students find out that I am a Fulbright scholarship holder, they ask if it is still safe to study in the US, or whether they should instead pursue scholarship opportunities in Germany, Singapore or New Zealand.

My Indonesian friends living in the US fear the immigration ban will be expanded to include more Muslim-majority countries, and are concerned that if they go back to visit Indonesia, they may not be able to return to the US to continue their studies or work.

Indonesians should know that this executive order comes directly from President Trump and was not approved by the American people or their elected representatives in Congress. They should know that many Americans who live, work and study in Indonesia are outraged and are fighting anti-Islamic sentiment, discourse and policies in the US.

These are just a few of the beyond-regrettable outcomes of the executive order. With increasing mistrust of America and Americans, and fear for personal safety, fewer Indonesians will pursue opportunities to study or work in the US, go there on holiday or even strike up conversations with Americans visiting Indonesia.

As more than 1,000 State Department officials have agreed, this ban does not make the US safer, but in fact is counter-productive and may well lead to increased radicalisation and terrorism. Mutual understanding, communication and cooperation are the values that promote a safer America and a safer world, not walls and bans.

At a town hall meeting held the day after President Trump's inauguration, I asked US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph Donovan how he would respond to Indonesians' concerns about Islamophobia in America. He rightly replied that most Americans are tolerant people, and Indonesian students, visitors, workers and immigrants to the US have found this to be true.

However, it seems that the American who sits in the nation's highest office exemplifies the least tolerant strands of American society. President Trump and his officials, including Ambassador Donovan, may argue that this immigration executive order is not, in fact, a Muslim ban.

They may cite the 40 other Muslim-majority countries that are not affected by this ban, including Indonesia. And yet, these arguments do little to change Indonesian public perceptions about growing Islamophobia and xenophobia in America under the Trump administration.

Shortly after arriving in Indonesia, Mr Donovan visited a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Sukoharjo, Central Java. This visit conveyed an important message of religious tolerance, and yet, much more work needs to be done in Indonesia to articulate a counter-message to the Trump administration's discriminatory rhetoric and actions.

Not only Ambassador Donovan, but all Americans in Indonesia can also show, in ways big and small, their opposition to policies that discriminate on the basis of religion.

Maintaining and strengthening ties between Indonesia and the US is a priority that should be pursued at every level, from clear, moral leadership based on the American values of multiculturalism and equality at the highest levels of American representation, to people-to-people relations.

What Indonesians should know is that many average Americans oppose the immigration ban, as evidenced by the widespread demonstrations at airports, on the streets and in courtrooms across the country.

Indonesians should know that this executive order comes directly from President Trump and was not approved by the American people or their elected representatives in Congress.

Indonesians should know that many Americans who live, work and study in Indonesia are outraged and are fighting anti-Islamic sentiment, discourse and policies in the US.

Just as the struggle for religious and inter-ethnic tolerance continues in Indonesia, America is also fighting to preserve its core values as a pluralistic, open society.

JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

•Jenny Zhang is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley,

•SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Indonesians worry that US is turning anti-Muslim'. Print Edition | Subscribe