The decision by the U.S. to move the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem has sparked global protests. Currently, the Islamic nation-states of the South-Pacific have been awash with protests of Muslims rallying support of the Palestinians. These protests have not just been gatherings of several thousand people, they have also received the public support of their executive political leaders including the president of Indonesia and the prime minister of Malaysia. This raises a concern as to where the future of the South-Pacific is headed, and what it means for U.S. security interests in the region.
The decision of the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has inflamed tensions between the Islamic world and the West. This includes the region of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, thousands have taken to the streets to demand a reversal of the decision and the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state (atimes.com).
For the world’s largest Muslim majority country, a geographical distance from the Middle East is secondary to an enduring belief that the Islamic world must support its own populations. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made Palestinian independence a long-running foreign policy priority for the county that has been elevated under his leadership. He hosted the 2015 Asia-Africa Conference, bringing together leaders from across the two continents in one of his first major world stage appearances. (atimes.com).
Though Indonesian president Joko Widodo has been a strong proponent of a united Islamic world and an avowed supporter of the Palestinian cause, his personal record would not categorize him as a religious or political extremist. Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was elected Indonesia’s President, becoming the first leader elected outside of the country’s narrow political and military elite and coming from poverty. Jokowi has released 12 economic reform packages aimed at easing investment into the country and doing away with troublesome and redundant regulations (time.com).
In short, Jokowi is trying, step-by-step, to live up to his pledge of making it easier to do business in Indonesia. He has pledged to eliminate 3,000 regional government regulations by July (he has identified 42,000 regulations in need of elimination or change at the central government level), arguing they hamper the setting up and operation of businesses (csis.org).
He has made a bold new appointment for the chief of the national police, the former head of the national counterterrorism agency, Tito Karnavian (time.com). Karnavian presided over the pursuit of the Islamic terrorist Santoso. Santoso was the symbolic heart of the jihadi movement in Indonesia. He had trained more than 100 Indonesians but also a few Malaysians, creating a powerful alumni network (time.com).
A driving force in all of this has been the Indonesian Council of Ulema. It has been leading the “Indonesia unites for Palestine” movement. The country’s top Muslim clerical body organized a several day protest in the nation’s capital that collected thousands of people. Anwar Abbas, a top cleric from Palestine, read a petition calling on Indonesians to stop buying American products until Trump revoked his move (timesofisrael.com).
Nadlatul Ulama, or Council of Ulema, is a powerful organization. With 50-million strong it is the largest Sunni Islamic organization in the world (huffingtonpost.com). The organization has a history of bloody conflict, particularly with communists. It was instrumental in combating several communist uprisings such as the Madiun in 1948 where hundreds of NU and PKI members (a Kurdish group) were killed.
Later, NU violently clashed with the leftist PKI in the so-called 'unilateral actions' of 1964 and early 1965, when communist groups had sought to occupy large rural landholdings owned by well-to-do Muslims. In the period leading up to the coup, some sections of NU had worked closely with anti-communists in other political parties and the army to build an informal anti-PKI alliance. During this time NU units worked closely with the army and other anti-communist groups in drawing up lists of PKI members and supporters then either detaining or executing them. Much of the killing by NU squads took place on riverbanks or in fields, with victims usually being killed in a quick and orderly fashion using bladed weapons. Tens of thousands of PKI members and 'sympathizers' met their deaths at the hands of NU killing squads. Anecdotal information suggests that NU units were probably responsible for more executions than any other civilian group.
When those involved in NU's killing squads are asked why they executed communists, the most frequent reply is that their motivation was religious. Many Ulama described communists as kafir harbi or war-like infidels, informing their students and followers that it was an obligation to physically oppose such enemies until they either relent or are dead (insideindonesia.org). Though the organization has a history of violence that was religiously driven, it has also proven in modern times to be a powerful stalwart against religious extremism.
Part a Sunni religious body, part political party and part charity, it was founded in 1926, nearly 90 years ago, as a response to another Sunni movement, Wahabbism. Wahabbism is the ultra-conservative reform movement based in Saudi Arabia that advocates for puritanical laws from the time of Islam’s origins. It rejects the modern notion of religion as a purely private activity and the separation of church and state.
The Islamic State is highly committed to Wahhabi principles, using its religious textbooks and embracing its hardline tradition of killing unbelievers. NU’s stated goal is to “to spread messages about a tolerant Islam in their respective countries to curb radicalism, extremism and terrorism,” which, it claims, “often spring from a misinterpretation of Islamic teachings.” It launched its global anti-extremism initiative in 2014.
NU is setting its sights worldwide. In December 2014, it created an American nonprofit called Bayt ar-Rahmah in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to serve as headquarters for its international activities. It is also building a “prevention center” in Indonesia to train Arabic-speaking students to combat jihadist rhetoric, alongside NU theologians. It has created a joint program with the University of Vienna in Austria called VORTEX, the Vienna Observatory for Applied Research on Radicalism and Extremism.
The project, which is funded by the Ministry of Internal Security, works to “produce counter-narratives against radical ideas and propagate them globally,” said Staquf. He said NU is also working on future projects with the Swedish and British governments (huffingtonpost.com).
Malaysians planning a protest at the Putra Mosque intend a show of unity rejecting the United States’ move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such events and voicing of disapproval have been well reported. What has been somewhat dismissed is the greater support these protests are receiving from ranking heads of state (thestar.com).
On 22 December 2017, a protest was held at Malaysia’s Putra Mosque. In attendance was the Malayan Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who arrived at the Putra Mosque to take part in the Solidarity Rally to Save Jerusalem. He arrived at 1 pm and immediately went to the prayer hall to perform the Friday prayer followed by the Hajat prayer. A special sermon touching on the Jerusalem issues is being delivered by Federal Territory Mufti Datuk Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri. Also in attendance was Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (nst). In addition PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, Palestine Ambassador to Malaysia Datuk Dr Anwar Al Agha and various political and NGO leaders were expected to make an appearance (thestartv.com).
In response to these protests and others like them being carried on throughout the world, the U.S. has threatened strong action. U.S President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off U.S. funding to countries that support a resolution criticizing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. US Ambassador Nikki Haley stated that the United States "will be taking names" of countries that vote in favour of a General Assembly resolution declaring that Jerusalem's status can be changed only by direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
"For all these nations, they take our money and then vote against us. They take hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars and then they vote against us."
In a letter to over 180 of the 193 UN member states, Ms Haley hinted at possible U.S. retaliation. Mr Trump's comments made clear to recipients of US assistance that billions of dollars could be at stake (thenational).
The situation regarding Jerusalem has sparked a global outcry from the world, particularly the Muslim dominated regions. What is difficult to ascertain is whether the positions taken by the political leadership of such countries as Indonesia are hardened stances of belief or if this is the simple politics of appeasing the current political climates within their own borders. Given that much of this fervor is being driven by powerful Islamic political agents it is understandable that politicians in these countries tread lightly.
The U.S. has a right to maintain its position and assert its rights in the world. However, it must also understand what greater ramifications exist beyond their actions. If the protests of even more traditionally moderate nations are indeed being driven by powerful influences within their religious communities, then it is paramount that the U.S. does not exacerbate the situation. A primary U.S. concern should be moving too boldly on the global stage in a way that offers fuel that could feed anti-American movements throughout the world. If moderate governments are delivering public outcry as a way to appease angered political bases, then a sudden withdrawal of needed financial aid or some other form of detrimental retaliation by the U.S. will only undermine their position and open the door for other threats to emerge.
The U.S. should not simply kowtow to world opinion, it should, when necessary, assert itself. How it responds must be more thoughtful and decisive so as not to create grossly negative second and third order effects.