What Trump’s Victory Means for Muslim-Majority Indonesia

Should Jakarta be worried about the future U.S. president’s anti-Muslim rhetoric?

What Trump’s Victory Means for Muslim-Majority Indonesia
Credit: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

Defying all odds, Donald Trump triumphed in the recent U.S. presidential election and sent shockwaves around the world. Trump’s adroit use of anti-Muslim and anti-migrant rhetoric to win the election has sparked fears of exacerbating tensions between the West and Islam. The question of how much of Trump’s rhetoric, including on trade protectionism, gets translated to official policy is also causing uncertainty. Nonetheless, world leaders have responded to president-elect Trump favorably, tempered, however, with diplomatic caution and guarded optimism.

The president of Muslim-majority Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo congratulated Trump on his victory, inviting “the U.S. president-elect to continue our diplomatic relationship to create peace and welfare in the world.” Arrmanatha Nasir, a foreign ministry spokesman, also remarked that the United States, long seen as a democratic and pluralistic society, would remain so, and continue to exert a positive impact on relations with Indonesia under a Trump presidency. He added that Trump’s anti-Muslim posture was nothing more than a political ruse to canvas for votes. The trade minister, Enggartiasto Lukita, reassured Indonesian businesses that, despite Trump’s protectionist stance, Indonesia-U.S. economic relations would remain productive.

But some elites were not enthused by Trump’s triumph. Vice President Jusuf Kalla called Trump “a threat to global peace.” Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), similarly expressed concern that Trump’s victory on the back of anti-Muslim bigotry could generate new tension between America and the Muslim world. Recognizing that Trump’s win could worsen tension in the Asia-Pacific, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu cautioned Trump not to “bring that matter here [to Indonesia], don’t give us more problems.” Several Indonesian politicians like Fadli Zon, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives (DPR), have reportedly called for restrictions or bans on Trump’s business interests in Indonesia, in a tit-for-tat response to the threats of a Muslim ban and trade protectionism in the United States.

Despite a lack of elite consensus on what a Trump presidency would mean for Indonesia, it does seem to be the case that the Jakarta elites are attempting to downplay fears of Trump’s Islamophobia, especially among Indonesians, as well as his protectionist posture, by looking at the bigger picture in working with Trump to keep U.S.-Indonesia relations on an even keel.

In the editorials of major Indonesian newspapers, the message was broadly one of cautious optimism. Jakarta Post headlined its editorial “Congrats Donald Trump,” writing that despite Trump’s virulent rhetoric, “Trump’s promise to get along with all nations is indicative that the U.S. under him could do Indonesia good.” Kompas essentially followed the direction of Jokowi’s congratulatory message and focused more on Trump’s impact on Indonesia’s economy. The Islamic Republika, which is often critical of Jokowi, merely reported Jokowi’s congratulatory message without unduly criticizing it. This could be due to the fact that Muslims in Indonesia were evidently divided on how to respond to a Trump presidency.

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Indonesian Muslims on the ground were divided into two groups. One group, represented by Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, believes that Trump should be given the benefit of the doubt, as those anti-Muslim remarks were uttered to pander to his conservative Republican base. But when Trump enters the White House, these “moderate” Muslims are hoping he does not enact policies against Muslims, but instead practices diplomacy premised on universality and humility, especially toward the Muslim world. The other group, represented by “radical” Muslims belonging to hard-line organizations such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), have taken Trump’s remarks at face value, and hence, consider him to be genuinely anti-Muslim.

Trump’s triumph intersected with politics in Indonesia becoming exceedingly “Islamized.” The demonstration against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (alias Ahok) on November 4, numbering about 150,000, came about under the pretext of Ahok, an ethnic Chinese and a Christian, insulting the Quran. This arose against the backdrop of Ahok’s decision to run for a second term as governor of Jakarta. Although Ahok had criticized those who misused Quranic verse 51 to discourage the people of Jakarta from re-electing him, his speech on video was maliciously edited on social media, caricaturing him as someone who had disparaged the Quran.

Some 35 Islamic groups led by FPI urged Indonesian Muslims to demonstrate against Ahok. MUI even issued a fatwa condemning Ahok for belittling the Quran. The Islamic Students Association (HMI) also joined the fray by demanding that Ahok be put on trial. Consequently, Jakarta’s gubernatorial election was instantaneously transformed into a national anti-Chinese, anti-Christian candidate campaign. Significantly, the creeping Islamization of Indonesian politics, whereby the secular space becomes increasingly diminished as a consequence, could well compel Jakarta to keep Washington at a distance, given Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry.

As Trump is not interested in the United States being the global policeman, he may not be genuinely interested in Southeast Asia. The re-pivoting of Trump’s America from the region may well incentivize China to move into the power vacuum, tilting the regional balance of power from Washington to Beijing. Under such a situation, Jakarta may well navigate closer to China rather than stay neutral between Washington and Beijing consonant with the bebas dan aktif (independent and active) foreign policy doctrine. This tilt, however, depends on China making the right move in choosing bilateral economic engagement over barging into the waters off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Should Trump’s protectionist policy be enacted, it could adversely impact Indonesian exports. America is one of Indonesia’s major export markets, worth about $16 billion in 2015. As a consequence, Indonesia may be compelled to look elsewhere to make up the shortfall. Jakarta may well look to Beijing, further illustrating Jakarta’s possible tilt from Washington to Beijing.

Nevertheless, at the moment, it is still uncertain what Trump will do when he officially takes office in 2017. Whether or not Trump will go ahead with the pledges he made during his campaign remains unclear, but one thing is for sure: Jakarta-Washington relations under a Trump presidency are unlikely to be as closely intertwined as under the Obama administration.

Leo Suryadinata is visiting senior fellow and Mustafa Izzuddin is fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.