What Southeast Asian Muslims' Response to US-Jerusalem Embassy Move Means

December 15, 2017 (Joseph Thomas - NEO) - US President Donald Trump's announcement to move the US embassy in Israel from the city of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has ignited protests, tensions and fears of future conflict across the Middle East. Protests and posturing have followed the announcement from a wide variety of demographics.

Predictably, Muslim communities across the Middle East have voiced their opposition. This includes both Sunnis and Shia'a who have even united at rallies organised by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Middle Eastern Christians have also attended such events as well as having staged their own protests.

Other nations, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have predictably condemned the United States and Israel, while simultaneously continuing their collaboration with both in terms of undermining Syria.

While it is tempting to see the ongoing conflict through a primarily religious lens, however, geopolitics appears to be a much more relevant target and motivation driving US foreign policy and the very predictable reaction it has provoked.

This is especially so, considering how large Muslim communities beyond the Middle East have reacted, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia's Muslims Muted Over Move 

Southeast Asia is home to an estimated 240 million Muslims. They compose a majority of the populations in Indonesia (the most populous Muslim nation on the planet), Malaysia and Brunei. Muslims also make up a sizeable minority in nations including Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.

Despite the significant number of Muslims in Southeast Asia, the fervour over America's announcement was relatively muted.

There were indeed protests held in Malaysia and Indonesia including by parties with past or present affiliations with the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but beyond these symbolic protests, little more has unfolded. 

ABC News in its article, "Muslims in Asia rally against Trump's Jerusalem move," would report:
In Kuala Lumpur, more than 1,000 protesters led by Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin marched from a nearby mosque after Friday prayers to the U.S. Embassy, halting traffic as they chanted "Long live Islam" and "Destroy Zionists." Many carried banners, some of which said "Free Palestine" and "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine."

It would also claim:
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, more than 300 protesters shouted "Go to hell Israel!" and called on Trump to stop "blind support" for the Jewish state. Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia has diplomatic ties with Israel and both are strong supporters of Palestinians.
No protests of significance were organised elsewhere in the region.

Persian Gulf states and their US and European allies have attempted to politicise Southeast Asia's Muslim populations, radicalise them and divide them against Buddhists, Christians and the secular, but with very limited success. 

The ongoing violence targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar and militants associated with the so-called Islamic State (IS) seizing the Philippine city of Marawi represent the extent of Persian Gulf, US and European success in shaping Islam into and wielding it as a geopolitical weapon. 

US efforts to expand an ongoing but so-far-contained separatist movement in Thailand's deep south into a direct confrontation between Thai Buddhists and Muslims has gained little traction. Isolated IS attacks in Malaysia and Indonesia have also been carried with timing suspiciously in-sync with positive developments in both countries' relations with China, but to little effect.   

Moulding Public Perception 

More than anything else, Israel's intentionally provocative foreign and domestic policy coupled with the most recent US move is likely an attempt to condition public perception ahead of further regional conflict in the Middle East, and particularly against Syria and Iran.

Noting that many protesters in Southeast Asia cited America's "blind support" for Israel, the notion that Israel persuaded the US to move its embassy, rather than the US deciding for itself helps perpetuate the idea that Israel not only pursues a very independent agenda, but one the US is beholden to.

According to US policy papers, however, US efforts to overthrow the governments of nations like Syria and Iran depend on proxies including Israel, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states to place pressure on both. In one US policy paper produced by the Brookings Institution, it is even suggested that Israel pose as undertaking a unilateral first strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in the hopes that Iran retaliates and offers the US an opportunity to involve itself directly in military intervention and regime change.

Nowhere in the Brookings document is it suggested that Israel would actually unilaterally undertake an attack, nor does any sound geopolitical analysis suggest such a thing would even be possible. Israel's military forces depend on US weapons and intelligence as well as logistical support. The September 2017 announcement that the US opened its first permanent military base on Israeli soil also complicates the maintaining of this illusion.

The recent US embassy move, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia's substantial Muslim populations, has helped layer over the reality of years of policy papers and the tangible realities of Israeli dependence on US military might both directly and indirectly regarding any future aggression against Syria or Iran.

The move, intentionally provocative and designed to maximise emotional outrage, has achieved its goal. If and when Israel carries out a significant military strike against either Syria or Iran, current efforts to shape public perception around the idea that Israel is leading Washington along will afford Washington with a degree of plausible deniability.

While the embassy move will likely have no impact on Southeast Asia itself, moulding public perception of tens of millions of Muslims in Southeast Asia will help prepare global public perception ahead of the next round of hostilities launched by the United States and its united front against Syria, Iran and by extension, Russia and eventually China.

Joseph Thomas is chief editor of Thailand-based geopolitical journal, The New Atlas and contributor to the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.