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Trump's Jerusalem move sparks a backlash in Southeast Asia

Indonesia, Malaysia a lead chorus of criticism as Muslims protest US decision

Members of Nahdlatul Ulama, a large Indonesian Muslim group, protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on Dec. 8. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has sparked protests and condemnation in Southeast Asian countries with large Muslim populations.

In Jakarta, demonstrators on Dec. 11 burned the U.S. flag as well as pictures of Trump. The day before, the Prosperous Justice Party held a massive demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy that drew more than 4,000 people.

Concerned that public anger in the predominantly Muslim country could turn violent, Indonesian authorities have beefed up security.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, speaking at a news conference shortly after Trump's announcement, said his country "strongly condemns the United States' unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and asks the U.S. to reconsider the decision."

A massive protest also took place in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 8. According to local media, demonstrators shouted "Free Palestine," with young members of the ruling United Malays National Organization, including Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, reportedly taking part.

Protesters have also taken to social media. One user has called for a boycott of McDonald's Malaysia, claiming the fast-food chain sends funds to Israel. While the company has denied this, some Muslims are boycotting its restaurants.

Malaysia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it is "extremely concerned" about the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. "It has grave repercussions not only toward the security and stability of the region, but could also inflame Muslim sentiment worldwide. This will make addressing violent extremism and the radicalization narrative all the more difficult," the statement said.

STRONG WORDS Jerusalem's status is a deeply sensitive issue for Muslims, and sympathy for predominantly Muslim Palestine is strong in Indonesia and Malaysia. Even among government heavyweights, there seems to be an increasingly strong anti-American sentiment.

On Dec. 9, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein slammed Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, calling it "a slap in the face for the entire Muslim world."

"We have to be prepared for any possibilities," Hussein was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama. "The ATM [Malaysian Armed Forces] has always been ready, waiting for instructions from the top leadership."

Such strong words surprised other powerful figures in the country. Brig. Gen. Mohd Arshad Raji, president of the National Patriots Association and a former national army chief, called Hussein's remarks "unwise."

"The international conflict in Jerusalem is a political issue," he said. "It is best left to diplomacy to sort out this historical mess. If diplomacy fails, the next course of action can be international condemnation."

Other Asian countries have also criticized Trump's move.

Pakistan released a statement from the prime minister's office saying, "It is deeply regrettable that pleas from states across the globe not to alter the legal and historical status of Al-Quds Al-Sharif have been ignored, more out of choice than necessity," using the Arabic name for Jerusalem.

Singapore's Foreign Ministry said that "any premature and unilateral action to alter the status of Jerusalem will impede progress for a peaceful resolution of the Middle East and Palestinian problem," and added that the status of the city should be decided through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Asia regional correspondent Simon Roughneen contributed to this article.

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