Witnessing America from Nusantara / by Jonathan McLeod

I watched the final build-up, real-time unfolding, and now tumultuous aftermath of last week’s election from Indonesia, a place about as far away from the United States as one can possibly get. Having such geographic remoteness is not the boon many anti-Trump people wistfully imagine, like those who collectively crashed Canada’s immigration website the night of the election in order to entertain the fantasy that, if Trump is to be President, it might be better not to live in America at all.

On the contrary, perhaps nothing has made me feel more strongly that I should be in America than this election, because now is the time when being an engaged citizen takes on new meaning and urgency.

Less than two weeks before the election I began a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, so I am committed to being here in Nusantara, a vast tropical archipelago that is literally on the other side of the world. I feel a sense of helplessness, and even guilt, about being so far away from what is transpiring at home. But one small contribution I can make is to share insights from being in a Muslim-majority society following the election of a virulently anti-Muslim US President, and what this election is going to mean, at least in the short-term, for America’s image abroad.

What people from other countries think about America and how they feel about its political (de)evolution is, for better or worse, very much connected to the preservation (or not) of our ideals as a nation; a nation that thinks of itself, and is perceived by many others (rightly or not), as being a model for progress, human rights and democracy. 

These American ideals stand in stark contrast to the hateful words and campaign promises of the President-elect, as well as the appalling words and even violent actions of so many of his supporters, which we must now unfortunately bear witness to in communities throughout America.

Sometimes fellow Americans ask me if it is safe to travel to Indonesia. It is hard not to read into this question the assumption that because Indonesia is a Muslim-majority society – in fact, the largest Muslim population of any nation - it is dangerous for Westerners. In other words, it is an equation of Islam with terrorism and intolerance. I am happy to answer that, quite to the contrary, I have been deeply moved by the generosity and friendliness of the Indonesian people, even from those who have very little means or experience with foreigners. I have always felt not only safe in Indonesia, but also warmly welcomed.

One of my Indonesian language teachers here in East Java, Mbak Tanty, is a bright, cheerful, and highly-motivated recent college graduate. She plans to apply to American universities to earn a Master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies. She is a self-identified feminist and asks me earnest questions about LGTBQ rights in America, which are woefully lacking in Indonesia. She also wears a hijab, like so many of the amazing women I have met and worked with during many visits to Indonesia.

Immediately following the election, Tanty began showing me reports of harassment and violence against Muslim Americans in the US. “Is it safe?”, she asked, with uncharacteristic melancholy and a pit in her stomach. “Yes, it is safe, just be careful where you go,” I cautioned, adding somewhat lamely, “but maybe you should avoid rural areas, especially in the Deep South.” Her list of potential universities includes a few of the University of California campuses, the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan-Ann Arbor, and several Ivy League schools. “Don’t worry, Tanty, you’ll be fine in any of those places.” But I was also unconvinced.

Then yesterday I saw the report of a Muslim woman on the Michigan-Ann Arbor campus, who a man threatened to set on fire unless she removed her hijab, the clothing she had chosen for herself as a proud women and Muslim. Like Tanty, many people in Indonesia, especially its best and brightest, are closely watching these developments.

What this looks like from the outside is that the hatred and ignorance which is being exposed throughout America right now, and which brought Donald Trump to power, is causing people to wonder if it is safe in the “land of freedom” to be a member of a certain religion or wear a particular type of clothing or even to just be a women. Whether someone who goes to America can freely express their religious and cultural identify without fear of being persecuted and humiliated. Whether it is safe for them to go to America at all.

Of course, as too many American citizens  throughout history and in the present day know, through their own suffering and even deaths, systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bigotry in many forms are nothing new. And yet the "idea of America" is one of progress through democratic means. It is not always the reality itself that others look to, but the idealism spurring open civil discourse and a slow march of progress which others around the world admire.  Yet this new political legitimization of the darkest aspects of American society and culture will certainly endanger that narrative, and America's standing among aspiring nations, for years to come.

Based on Trump’s own campaign rhetoric - its racism and fear-mongering unprecedented in modern mainstream American politics - many Indonesian Muslims understand that the US government does not welcome them and will not protect their human rights should they go to there. Rather than embodying democratic ideals and championing human rights, from the outside looking in America suddenly constitutes a subject of both pity and fear, an example of precisely that which others who believe in human rights, inclusiveness, and social progress do not want to happen in their own countries, or are actively struggling against.

I have had the fortune to travel extensively in Indonesia, beginning during my high school years in the late 1990’s, and now more frequently over the past several years in relation to my PhD program. I have stayed in the modern megalopolis of Jakarta, and lived in other, newly prosperous cities on the island of Java, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. I have spent time in Bali, with its unique form of Hinduism and the  presence of foreign tourists. I have visited tiny fishing villages in the more remote Maluku Islands, where both Christian as well as Muslim communities exist on the economic periphery. Earlier this year I also made the journey to Papua, where my research will take place, a region with a Christian-majority population and where dozens if not hundreds of indigenous groups still lead traditional subsistence livelihoods. In other words, I have experienced a wide range of social, cultural and economic settings in this vast and diverse nation.

Not even once during these travels have I felt intimidated, humiliated, or subject to harassment. Of course, such treatment is not impossible, and I do not mean to say that Indonesia is a perfect society. Its history and present moment are rife with troubling social issues, as with any other large nation. But one of the reasons I have taken such pleasure in returning again and again to this country is the unfailing graciousness, inquisitiveness, and hopeful spirit of the Indonesian people, a country very much on the rise.

One of the sorrowful ironies of this election is that it is Indonesian Muslims traveling to the United States who have reason to fear harassment and violence, not the other way around.  I feel safe here. I feel welcomed. And that makes me wonder to whom the future truly belongs.

Hopefully to all of those who are motivated by love and hope, not hate.