The World’s Biggest Muslim Nation Is Telling Its Citizens to Shut Up About Trump
Indonesians and Malaysians are afraid they could be next in the U.S. president’s crosshairs.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — As crowds and leaders worldwide fiercely protested U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order blocking all immigration from seven Muslim states, the head of the world’s largest Muslim country shook off the ban.
“We are not affected by the policy. Why fret?” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said at a business launch in Boyolali on Monday. Widodo has “made sure that the policy of the American president does not have an impact on Indonesian citizens,” said Johan Budi, Widodo’s spokesman. “Therefore, people are asked to remain quiet.”
Across the border in Muslim-majority Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak, like many other Islamic leaders, was doing just that — staying silent on a ban widely seen as targeting faith. It was a marked contrast with his vocal condemnation of Buddhist Myanmar in recent months for its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority.
In Malaysia’s capital, however, others felt the blow more sharply. After quitting her cleaning job, giving away the few larger items she owned, and packing up her other belongings, Cawo Ali was ready to say goodbye to nine years of limbo on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. But two days before her long-dreamed-of flight to the United States, the Somali refugee, who asked that her real name not be used, was told her departure had been canceled.
“Everything has fallen apart,” said the 27-year-old single mother, resting her head on her hand. “I don’t know where to start again.”
Despite the silence or complicity of their leaders, ordinary Malaysians and Indonesians alike were angry and fearful about the implications of the unprecedented U.S. move. Unlike Indonesia, where 88 percent of the population is Muslim, slightly less than two-thirds of Malaysians belong to the faith. But opposition has crossed communal borders. In Malaysia, a multicultural collection of NGOs, faith groups, and political parties is planning a protest rally outside the U.S. Embassy on Friday. Activists in Jakarta are alarmed by the ban but do not have formal plans for a protest event, according to Alissa Wahid, national coordinator of the GUSDURian Network for social activism. Their bandwidth is largely exhausted by the sensational blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s governor, which has become an all-consuming domestic issue.
Ong Kian-Ming, a member of parliament from the opposition Democratic Action Party, said it was vital for Malaysians to take a stand “in solidarity with refugees” and “because of the possibility the ban may be extended” to include its nationals.
Students have been particularly concerned about the travel ban, with tens of thousands flocking to the United States for further studies each year. One fresh Malaysian graduate, who works for a consulting firm in New York City, has decided not to leave the country for at least a year in case the order is expanded and she is denied re-entry. “I was advised by several people not to leave,” said Joanna Ghazali, 28. “I think most Americans believe in diversity, that they will stand up for what is right, but we do know that there will be a new normal at the end of these four years [the presidential term]. We don’t know what it will look like for women or Muslims or minorities, and that’s dangerous.”
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“It’s quite an unsettling time,” said Dyah Ramadhani, an Indonesian graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I do not want to be scared of practicing my beliefs,” she said, adding that she is monitoring how the situation unfolds. “I’m concerned that my parents won’t be able to see me on my graduation.”
Consulate hotlines for Indonesians in America have been ringing nonstop since the ban was announced. “We deeply regret Trump’s executive order,” Mukti Setianto, a representative of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, told Foreign Policy. “It’s likely to have a negative impact on its stated goal: curbing terrorism. It’s a slippery slope to blame a single religion for terror.”
With both Indonesia and Malaysia facing active jihadi movements, activists such as Mohamad Raimi Ab Rahim, president of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, are concerned about the wider fallout of the ban. He thinks the move could stoke anti-American sentiment, carrying “a high risk and possibility of creating new radicals.”
So far, though, the reaction among radicals has been relatively limited. Reportedly, supporters of the Islamic State took to social media in recent days to celebrate Trump’s action as evidence that “the United States is at war with Islam.” But for now, that seems to be contained to groups stationed in and focused on the Middle East, not jihadis in Southeast Asia.
“It’s just the usual stuff, like ‘Trump is the prophesied Antichrist,’” said Nava Nuraniyah, a terrorism expert at Indonesia’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. “But the so-called Muslim ban really hasn’t got much attention on Indonesian jihadist channels; they’re more preoccupied with IS losses in Syria and the dozens of Indonesian IS sympathizers recently deported from Turkey.”
“I think they are not really interested in Trump’s immigration policies that do not affect them personally,” said Muh Taufiqurrohman, a researcher at the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies.
National leaders Najib and Widowo seem equally indifferent. Chandra Muzaffar, a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur, thinks this could come down to the benefits that Trump and Najib stand to gain for maintaining good ties.
“Trump will be looking for allies in this part of the world against China,” he told Foreign Policy, adding that this made it unlikely Malaysia would become part of any future expanded ban list. Muzaffar said Najib may reconsider some of his bonds with the Asian giant for a closer relationship with the world superpower.
Indonesia, meanwhile, may be shielded by its business ties to Trump’s commercial empire. Muslim-majority nations where Trump has done business — like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — are so far exempt from his executive order, which ethics lawyers have characterized as “arbitrary and discriminatory.” Trump is developing branded luxury resorts in Java and Bali with the Indonesian billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibjo.
If Southeast Asian leaders officially protest Trump’s policy, the consequences could be significant for the United States. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, told CNBC, “If Widodo or Najib interpret the order as a broader act against Muslims, instead of one focused on U.S. national security, then all kinds of repercussions could happen, including a marked decline in travel stateside and a diminished view of America as a great power.”
“I think Jokowi [Joko Widodo] is spot-on not to overreact as if the U.S. is targeting Islam and Muslims as a whole, rather than a segment of Muslim populations from countries whose peoples pose potential risks to U.S. national security,” Hamid told Foreign Policy. “But whilst Jokowi’s stance is reasonable, and his rational response is important diplomatically in view of his position as head of state, will he be able to control the Muslim masses? I doubt it.”
At the same time, Trump’s disregard for civil liberties and refugee rights may provide the Malaysian and Indonesian governments with a shield for fresh authoritarianism at home.
Under Barack Obama’s presidency, several Malaysian rights champions decried at home were lauded for their work, including the transgender rights advocate Nisha Ayub, who won the U.S. International Women of Courage Award last year. But Trump’s words and actions so far suggest a radically different approach to civil liberties both in the United States and globally.
“A me-first approach without regard to international obligations to human rights, to the rights of refugees, will give justification to countries like Malaysia which have not had a stellar record,” said Andrew Khoo, a human rights lawyer in Malaysia, referring to the travel ban. “It will give credence to our own government’s efforts to try to exclude people from our country. If America can do this, so can we.”
For Malaysia’s sizable refugee population — more than 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with the U.N.’s refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur — the reverberations are already in motion. At an evening English-language class for refugees in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, several students said they have been anxiously watching the chaotic airport scenes unfolding at U.S. airports. “Donald Trump does not respect all religions,” one male student said. A 27-year-old woman, who recently applied for resettlement to the United States to join her husband, a truck driver with residency, said the images evoke fear. “I’m scared about what I heard, but I still have hope to join him even if it takes a bit longer.”
Shafie Sharif, a Somali community leader who has spent nearly a decade in Malaysia waiting for resettlement to a third country, says the U.S. rules are simply unjust.
“We were victims of extremists in Somalia. We cannot go back to our home country. Now we are being labeled as terrorists. Why is the world’s biggest power acting against the poorest countries in the world? It damages the dignity of America.”
Neither country is a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and refugees and asylum-seekers within their borders are not allowed to work or attend school. In Indonesia, Middle Eastern refugees frequently arrive by boat and wait up to 10 years until the UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, is able to resettle them. Many of Indonesia’s 14,000 refugees and asylum-seekers were on track to be resettled in the United States. But the majority hail from Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia; nearly all are Muslim, and even those who aren’t on the banned list are deeply worried.
“The ban is certainly very influential,” Febi Yonesta, chairman of SUAKA, the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection, told Foreign Policy. “America’s quota for resettling refugees [once hosted by] Indonesia has historically been the largest in the world,” greater than those of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and any European country. “Now that’s in jeopardy, since most of our refugees originate from Muslim countries.”
Mohamed Rasool Bagherian, an Iranian refugee who has been stuck in Jakarta for six years, said his family of three was told they would be granted refuge in America this year, but now they are extremely doubtful. They were previously assigned to resettlement to Australia, only to be stymied by that country’s 2013 ban on maritime asylum-seekers.
“The ban was shocking news,” Bagherian said near his home in the North Jakarta suburb of Kelapa Gading. “We have absolutely no hope now.” Ironically, he said, he, his wife, and his 8-year-old son are Christians. “So this Muslim ban isn’t even accomplishing what it set out to do.” The Bagherians came to Indonesia by boat in 2010, when their son was 2 years old. “We were arrested and persecuted in Iran for our religion, have no basic rights in Indonesia, and now the doors of the whole world have slammed shut. I don’t see any way forward.” The ban is crafted to allow exceptions for religious minorities, such as the Bagherians, but the path to prove that status is opaque and hundreds have already had the door slammed in their faces.
Several other refugees, primarily Afghan Hazaras, told Foreign Policy that they also doubted their transit to America would ever transpire. “We are stuck here, I think,” said Masoma Faqihi, a 19-year-old Hazara refugee whose family of five was assigned by the UNHCR to America this year, despite Afghanistan not being on the list of banned nations.
But in Kuala Lumpur, the Somalian refugee Ali is desperately clinging to the hope that she and her young daughter will be allowed in.
“There is freedom in the United States. You can study and get a job. And there is no torture. Whether you’re black or white, everyone is the same,” she said in the three-bedroom apartment she shares with 11 other refugees from her devastated country. “The United States has always been open to everyone. … I’m still hopeful.”
Photo credit: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images
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Preeti Jha is an award-winning British journalist reporting from Asia.