JAKARTA (AFP) – United States Vice-President Mike Pence on Thursday (April 20) toured the biggest mosque in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, during a visit seen as a bid by his administration to heal divisions with the Islamic world.
After kicking off his stop in Indonesia by praising the country’s moderate Islam as “an inspiration”, he visited Istiqlal Mosque, which can accommodate 200,000 worshippers and whose vast, white dome towers over downtown Jakarta.
He slipped off his shoes before being guided around the mosque, which is also the biggest in South-east Asia, accompanied by his wife and two daughters in headscarves, as well as Istiqlal’s Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar.
His visit represents the most high-profile outreach to Muslims by the Donald Trump administration since the brash billionaire came to office and echoes a similar trip by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2010.
Since becoming president almost 100 days ago, 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”.
But Pence struck a starkly different tone during his visit to Indonesia, which has often been praised as a successful Muslim democracy where most practise a moderate form of Islam and coexist peacefully with substantial religious minorities.
“Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam is frankly an inspiration to the world and we commend you and your people,” he said after talks with President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta.
“In your nation as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn’t divide.”
TOLERANT ISLAM UNDER THREAT
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 programme.
At the mosque in Jakarta, Pence and his family also toured the cavernous main prayer room – which was empty during his visit but fills up with tens of thousands of worshippers during key dates in the Muslim calender – and admired the towering dome.
A man showed the US leader how he beats a carved drum next to the courtyard, a local addition to the traditional call to prayer.
Pence then held an interfaith dialogue behind closed doors with representatives of the Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu and Muslim faiths.
The vice president’s upbeat tone about Indonesian Islam contrasts with growing concerns inside the country that the traditionally inclusive brand of the religion is under threat from hardliners and a trend towards conservatism.
On Wednesday, Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was defeated in a run-off election to lead the capital by a Muslim challenger who was accused of pandering to hardliners to win votes.
Basuki, known by his nickname Ahok, lost after his once-unassailable lead in opinion polls was dented when he was put on trial for blasphemy in a case criticised as politically motivated.
Following his poll loss, he looks set to escape jail after prosecutors recommended in a court hearing Thursday that he be given only probation.
Pence’s Muslim outreach in Indonesia, where 90 per cent of the 255 million inhabitants are followers of the faith, has been welcomed locally but it is unlikely to 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 at the London School of Economics.
After his talks with Joko, Pence also said the US was committed to building a stronger defence partnership to combat terrorism, and guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where Indonesian and Chinese vessels have recently clashed.