Vice President Mike Pence became this week the first senior figure from the Trump White House to visit a Muslim country. As part of his tour in Southeast Asia, that was focused mostly on the crisis in the Korean peninsula, Pence stopped in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, which is home to approximately 250 million people.
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During his visit to Jakarta, the country's capital, Pence made a statement that under previous U.S. administrations probably wouldn't have been filed as more than a footnote, but in the Trump era, immediately made headlines and raised some eyebrows. "As the largest majority Muslim country, Indonesia's tradition of moderate Islam, frankly, is an inspiration to the world," Pence declared. He added that the United States commends Indonesia and its people "for the great inspiration that Indonesia provides to the world."
Indonesia is indeed a Muslim country led by moderate and democratically elected leadership. Its president, Joko Widodo, was elected in 2014, and was presented in news reports at the time as an "Indonesian version" of Barack Obama. Indonesia is also an important trade partner for the United States and has the largest navy in Southeast Asia. All of these factors can explain why Pence found it important to flatter his hosts in Jakarta this week. But the fact that he chose to specifically speak about the importance of moderate Islam was what made it into the news reports.
The reason is obvious: during his election campaign last year, Pence's boss, Donald Trump, made statements and promises that ignored any kind of differentiation between various movements and groups in the Muslim world. Trump talked about banning all Muslims from entering the United States, without exception, and in March 2016 he said in an interview to CNN that "Islam hates us. There is tremendous hate there."
Trump also assembled around him a number of key advisers with strong anti-Muslim opinions. Michael Flynn, his first choice for the position of National Security Adviser, claimed that Islam wasn't truly a religion, but rather a political ideology that must be defeated. He also said radical Islamism was like cancer "inside the body of 1.7 billion people" - suggesting that every Muslim person in the world was "infected" by it.
Flynn left his post after less than a month because of the investigation into Trump's ties with Russia, but other advisers who share his views on Islam - most notably, Stephen Bannon, a senior strategic adviser to Trump, and Sebastian Gorka, a member of the National Security Council - are still in the White House. Bannon in the past has ridiculed former Republican President George W. Bush for saying that Islam is a "religion of peace." He called Bush a "country club Republican" who "wants to be loved," and said that Islam "is not a religion peace - it's a religion of submission."
During his campaign for the presidency, and then during the transition period between the election and his inauguration, Trump was advised by Frank Gaffney, the founder of a far-right organization called "The Center for Security Policy," which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has advanced "a number of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories over the years." The ADL, the leading organization in the United States for tracking anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, also notes on its website that "Gaffney is the host of Secure Freedom Radio, a weekly radio program dedicated to advancement of myriad conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim extremism."
The presence of figures like Flynn, Bannon, Gaffney and Gorka (who is closely affiliated with Gaffney) around Trump during the campaign, the transition period and eventually, his entrance to the White House, was evident in some of Trump's first policy decisions and deliberations - from his short-lived "Muslim ban" that was blocked by the courts, to his intention (never carried through) to instruct the State Department to begin a process of examining whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a terror organization.
In recent weeks, however, the tone of the Trump administration on Islam has shifted. More moderate figures within the administration have made sure to distance themselves from the views expressed by Trump's extremist advisers. For example, in a meeting last month of the Global Coalition to fight ISIS, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the Islamist terror group represents "a warped interpretation of Islam." In the same speech, he also praised America's Muslim allies for contributing to the fight against ISIS.
When Flynn left the NSC, Trump chose General H.R. McMaster to replace him. McMaster was a field commander in Iraq during the war there last decade, and famously encouraged his soldiers to study about Islam and forge good ties with the local Iraqi population as part of the fight against terrorists. Once he got into the White House, McMaster tried to persuade Trump not to use the term "radical Islamic terrorism" in his first speech before both houses of Congress in late February.
McMaster lost that battle - Trump insisted on using the phrase, which his predecessor, Barack Obama, came under criticism for refusing to say - but his influence was felt a month later, when Trump met in Washington with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. In a statement released after the meeting, the White House said "President Trump applauded President al-Sissi’s courageous efforts to promote moderate understandings of Islam, and the leaders agreed on the necessity of recognizing the peaceful nature of Islam and Muslims around the world."
The statement echoed Bush's words - which Bannon lashed out against - about Islam being "a religion of peace." It also corresponded with an earlier statement made by Trump's secretary of defense, James Mattis, who said that terrorists from Al-Qaida and similar organizations "defame Islam." This week, while Pence was in Southeast Asia, Mattis embarked on a trip to the Middle East, which included a stop in Israel, but also visits to four Muslim-majority countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Djibouti.
And yet, it is still too early to declare that one of the two "factions" in the administration has won the argument about the nature of Islam, and the relationship between the world's fastest-growing religion and the United States. Former officials who had served under both Republican and Democratic administrations have expressed concerns in recent months that, no matter who will eventually win the internal White House battle on this question, the very fact that Bannon, Flynn, Gorka and Gaffney have become part of an American president's decision-making process is harmful.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser in the Bush and Clinton administrations, told Haaretz that "the mere existence of the debate itself between two camps - one that sees Islam the religion in positive and tolerant terms and the other that views it negatively as a threat - is harmful to American values, interests and security. That this tension and struggle is happening in the White House reportedly competing to influence the president is even more damaging."