Pence praises moderate Islam in Indonesia in bid to heal divisions

JAKARTA (AFP) – US Vice President Mike Pence yesterday toured the biggest mosque in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, during a visit seen as a bid by his administration to heal divisions with the Islamic world.

After kicking off his stop in Indonesia by praising the country’s moderate Islam as “an inspiration”, he visited Istiqlal Mosque, which can accommodate 200,000 worshippers and whose vast, white dome towers over downtown Jakarta.

He slipped off his shoes before being guided around the mosque, which is also the biggest in Southeast Asia, accompanied by his wife and two daughters in headscarves, as well as Istiqlal’s Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar.

His visit represents the most high-profile outreach to Muslims by the Donald Trump administration since the brash billionaire came to office and echoes a similar trip by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2010.

Since becoming president almost 100 days ago, Trump has hosted leaders from majority-Muslim Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

US Vice President Mike Pence (C) is given a tour by the Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque Nasaruddin Umar (L) and the Chairman of the mosque Muhammad Muzammil Basyuni during his visit to the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, in Jakarta, Indonesia yesterday. - AP
US Vice President Mike Pence (C) is given a tour by the Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque Nasaruddin Umar (L) and the Chairman of the mosque Muhammad Muzammil Basyuni during his visit to the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, in Jakarta, Indonesia yesterday. – AP

But his administration has also tried to ban travellers from several Muslim-majority nations, citing concerns about terrorism – an effort currently being challenged in US courts.

As a presidential candidate, Trump often appeared to flirt with the far right as he railed against “radical Islamic terrorism”.

But Pence struck a starkly different tone during his visit to Indonesia, which has often been praised as a successful Muslim democracy where most practise a moderate form of Islam and coexist peacefully with substantial religious minorities.

“Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam is frankly an inspiration to the world and we commend you and your people,” he said after talks with President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta.

“In your nation as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn’t divide.”

Pence is currently 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 South Korea and Japan, Pence played down protectionist declarations of “America first” and reaffirmed US treaty commitments to the security of the two countries as tensions rise over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

At the mosque in Jakarta, Pence and his family also toured the cavernous main prayer room – which was empty during his visit but fills up with tens of thousands of worshippers during key dates in the Muslim calendar – and admired the towering dome.

A man showed the US leader how he beats a carved drum next to the courtyard, a local addition to the traditional call to prayer.

Pence then held an interfaith dialogue behind closed doors with representatives of the Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu and Muslim faiths.

The vice president’s upbeat tone about Indonesian Islam contrasts with growing concerns inside the country that the traditionally inclusive brand of the religion is under threat from hardliners and a trend towards conservatism.