Indonesians are right to be wary of United States President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, which temporarily bans travel and immigration by people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Indonesia is not one of the seven countries affected and it is wholly possible that President Trump will never issue a travel or immigration ban that directly affects Indonesian citizens.
Even if Indonesians remain free to travel to the US, the damage to US-Indonesia relations is substantial, with ripple effects from top diplomatic levels to the grassroots. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi has expressed Indonesia’s “deep regret” at the executive order, pointing out that the policy, which discriminates on the basis of religion, hampers efforts for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
At the individual level among Indonesian people, there is a growing perception of Islamophobia and xenophobia in America.
Let me share a few examples of how average Indonesians have expressed their concerns. As an American researching education and literacy in Indonesia, I come into daily contact with people from different religious, socioeconomic, linguistic and ethnic groups. In the months after the November 2016 American presidential election, on the back of an ojek (motorbike taxi), in alleyways outside schools in North Jakarta, in cafes full of students, I have repeatedly been asked the same thing: is it true that President Trump and Americans are Islamophobic?
Other American researchers, teachers and visitors across the archipelago have also reported being asked this question on the streets, on campuses and in public spaces, and of course this question has only become more salient in the last week since the travel ban was issued.
When Indonesian university students find out that I am a Fulbright scholarship holder, they ask if it is still safe to study in the US, or whether they should instead pursue scholarship opportunities to study in Germany, Singapore or New Zealand.
Indonesian friends who currently live in the US fear that the immigration ban will be expanded to include more Muslimmajority countries, and are concerned that if they come back to visit Indonesia, they may not be able to return to the US to continue their studies or work.
These are just a few of the beyond-regrettable outcomes of the executive order. With increasing mistrust of America and Americans, and fear for personal safety, fewer Indonesians will pursue opportunities to study or work in the US, go there on holiday, or even strike up conversations with Americans who are visiting Indonesia.
As over 1,000 US Department of State officials have agreed, this ban does not make America safer, but in fact is counterproductive and may very well lead to increased radicalization and terrorism. Mutual understanding, communication and cooperation are the values that promote a safer America and safer world, not walls and bans.
At a town hall meeting held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, I asked US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph Donovan how he would respond to Indonesians’ concerns about Islamophobia in America. Ambassador Donovan rightly replied that most Americans are tolerant people and Indonesian students, visitors, workers and immigrants to the US have found this to be true.
However, it seems that the American who sits in the nation’s highest office exemplifies the least tolerant strands of American society. President Trump and his officials, including Ambassador Donovan, may argue that this immigration executive order is not, in fact, a Muslim ban.
They may cite the 40 other Muslim-majority countries that are not affected by this ban, including Indonesia. And yet, these arguments do little to change Indonesian public perceptions about growing Islamophobia and xenophobia in America under the Trump administration.
Shortly after arriving in Indonesia, Ambassador Donovan visited a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Sukoharjo, Central Java. This visit conveyed an important message of religious tolerance, and yet, much more work needs to be done in Indonesia to articulate a counter-message to the Trump administration’s discriminatory rhetoric and actions.
Not only Ambassador Donovan, but all Americans in Indonesia can show, in big ways and small, their opposition to policies that discriminate on the basis of religion.
Maintaining and strengthening ties between Indonesia and the US is a priority that should be pursued at every level, clear, moral leadership based on the American values of multiculturalism and equality at the highest levels of American representation, from people-to-people relations.
What Indonesians should know is that many average Americans oppose the immigration ban, as evidenced by the widespread demonstrations at airports, on the streets, and in courtrooms across America.
Indonesians should know that this executive order comes directly from President Trump and was not approved by the American people or their elected representatives in Congress.
Indonesians should know that many Americans who live, work and study in Indonesia are outraged and are fighting anti-Islamic sentiment, discourse and policies in the US.
Just as the struggle for religious and interethnic tolerance continues in Indonesia, America is also fighting to preserve its core values as a pluralistic, open society.