Mike Pence to visit Indonesia's largest mosque in outreach to Muslims on Asia tour

Analysts say Pence's Muslim outreach in Indonesia will likely not be enough to assuage fears that the Trump administration is anti-Islam.

Pence takes message of US resolve against North Korea to Japan
US Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Atsugi naval air base in Ayase, south of Tokyo, Japan, April 18, 2017. Reuters

US Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit the largest mosque in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, on Thursday as a symbolic gesture for the deputy in an administration accused of stoking Islamophobia.

The White House said Pence will tour the Istiqlal Mosque and hold a multi-faith dialogue during the first day of a visit to Jakarta.

This latest visit by Pence represents the Trump administration's most high-profile outreach to Muslims since coming to office and echoes a similar trip by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2010.

About 90 per cent of Indonesia's 255 million inhabitants are Muslim. Ever since Donald Trump became the president, he has hosted leaders from majority-Muslim Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In contrary to that, Trump's administration has tried to ban travellers from several Muslim-majority nations by citing concerns about terrorism.

Trump often appeared to flirt with the far right as a presidential candidate while he railed against "radical Islamic terrorism".

Indonesia has welcomed Pence as they hope that his visit would reflect a shift in US attitudes to Islam. Maruf Amin, the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country's top Muslim clerical body, told AFP: "The US is a big country, with major influence, so it should present itself as a country which is friendly to everyone."

"Hopefully Pence's visit indicates a change in attitude, at least that they are moving away from the stance that they don't like Islam much," he added.

Adam Mulawarman, the Indonesian foreign ministry's director of American affairs, said he believed "the visit to Istiqlal reflects the desire of the US to open itself to Islam, to engage in interfaith dialogue."

But, analysts say that Pence's Muslim outreach in Indonesia, while welcomed, will likely not 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 from the London School of Economics.

Indonesia has long been held up as an example of inter-faith tolerance and religious intolerance has been rising in recent years, with a series of attacks by Islamic hardliners on minorities.

According to the critics, the case of Jakarta's Christian governor, who has been put on trial for blasphemy for allegedly insulting the Koran, has highlighted how religious freedoms are under threat.

On Wednesday, a Muslim challenger appeared to have bested the Christian incumbent in a religiously charged Jakarta gubernatorial election. The presumptive winner Anies Baswedan was accused of pandering to hardliners to win votes.

At present, Pence is 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 Jakarta, Pence will also meet President Joko Widodo who has been trying to reform the Indonesian economy and boost infrastructure projects.

The White House foreign policy advisor said that Pence will also praise Widodo's "leadership on counter-terrorism". Indonesia has long struggled with Islamic militancy.

The two leaders are also likely to discuss about the rising tensions in the South China Sea after recent clashes between Indonesian and Chinese vessels in waters near Indonesia's Natuna Islands on the fringes of the disputed waters.