Dave Smith, Bali, Indonesia – A Hindu island floating in the middle of the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, Bali is famed for its religious and cultural tolerance – an attribute that's helped its rapid ascension to a world-famous tourist destination.
But now that image is on the ropes after Bali's much-loved governor Wayan Koster upended a plan that would have allowed Indonesia to meet its obligation to host Israel at the 2023 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which was scheduled to kick off in the Southeast Asian nation on May 20.
Indonesia does not have formal relations with Israel, which it accuses of colonizing and brutalizing Palestinians. An undercurrent of fanatical Islam in Sumatra and Java, the two other islands where U-20 World Cup matches were to be held, meant hosting matches with the Israeli team there would have been complicated. But in Bali, which receives millions of foreign tourists a year, the Israelis would be welcomed like anybody else. Or so the organizers assumed.
"We, the Bali Province administration, reject Israel's participation in Bali," Koster said in a letter to Indonesia's ministry of sports that was widely circulated in the local press. "This event cannot be separated from humanitarian principles, as mandated by the constitution and Bung Karno," the governor said, referring to Sukarno, Indonesia's first president.
Koster cited a preamble in the first paragraph of the Indonesian Constitution calling for the universal abolition of colonialism and the country's undying support for Palestinian statehood, a foreign policy in play since Indonesia's independence in 1945. He even alluded that Bali could once again be targeted by Islamic terrorists, as it was in 2002 and 2005, if the Israeli team was to step foot on the so-called Island of the Gods.
That still wasn't enough for Koster, who then accused the world football governing body of double standards for blacklisting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine while turning a blind eye to Israel's actions: "I invite the people of Bali to pray together so that FIFA will be moved to act fairly by eliminating the Israeli team in the FIFA U-20 World Championship, the same way it did when eliminating the Russian team in the 2022 FIFA World Championship in Qatar."
FIFA was not impressed. Last week it revoked the country's hosting rights to the U-20 World Cup and nixed Indonesia's team from the line-up. Indonesia did not earn a place in the tournament by merit, as the Israeli team did, but was entitled to a spot by default as the host nation. FIFA is also expected to sanction Indonesia with fines and/or an international ban.
The decision has also cost Indonesia 3.7 trillion Indonesian rupiah (around $247 million) in lost ticket sales and tourism receipts, according to the Indonesia's Ministry of Tourism, and the country may not be considered a viable host for international sporting events for a very long time. Bali's hosting of the 2023 World Beach Games, which more than a dozen Israeli athletes have qualified for, also hangs on a knife edge.
Public reaction in football-mad Indonesia has been mixed, with many netizens denouncing the government for mixing politics and religion with sport – and advancing double standards of its own.
Just as it accuses Israel, Indonesia is a colonizer with a despicable human rights record. Since invading and annexing West Papua in the 1960s, the Indonesian military has killed up to half a million Papuans and "commits systematic atrocities against West Papuans that amount to genocide," according to U.S.-based watchdog Genocide Watch. "They include massacres, tortures, sexual assault and detention of political prisoners. Mining, deforestation, and internal colonization have led to West Papuans losing their land, traditional livelihoods, and autonomy."
Indonesia's brutal state apparatus does not limit its muscle-flexing to remote far-flung regions like Papua. In October, 135 people, including more than 40 children, died at a football match near the city of Malang in East Java Province after fans invaded the pitch and police and army fired teargas, causing a deadly stampede. After locking the gates to prevent spectators from escaping, soldiers beat them mercilessly with truncheons. Survivors who I interviewed in Malang described the incident not as a tragedy but as a massacre.
At the same time, many in Indonesia are praising the government for sticking to its guns and supporting their kin in Palestine. Last week, members of the Islamic Brother Front and other conservative Muslim groups held a protest in Jakarta, burning Israeli flags and carrying a thinly veiled antisemitic banner that proclaimed, "Israel is the enemy of Islam."
Yet these protestors numbered a few hundred in a nation of 277 million, and they do not reflect the beliefs of the general population. I have traveled the length and breadth of the Indonesian archipelago, including the ultra-conservative province of Aceh, which is governed by Sharia law. The overwhelming message I keep on hearing and the thing I keep on seeing is tolerance. For the most part, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Confucianists coexist peacefully in Indonesia. Whenever Indonesians ask me about my religion, I reply without fear or hesitation that I'm a Jew. No one has ever reacted negatively, though most do not know what Judaism is.
So what's behind Governor Koster's sabotaging of the U-20 World Cup? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation notes that Indonesia is gearing up for presidential and regional elections next year and Koster's move would have appealed to conservative Muslim voters, the most important bloc in any election in Indonesia.
But less than 10 percent of voters in Bali are Muslim and the fallout from his decision has doubtless cost Koster political capital, especially among younger voters. Was someone more powerful in the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, of which the governor is a member, pulling his strings? Koster appeared to admit as much after a high-level meeting in Jakarta last week. "It's not my attitude, it's also the government's attitude," he told reporters. "Ask for the solution, ask the right person."
Some of the blame for this torrid affair lies with FIFA, which did not properly vet Indonesia and its foreign policy toward Israel when it awarded the country hosting rights for the U-20 World Cup in 2019.
For now, FIFA is looking for a new host for the tournament. Peru, the runner-up in the original bid, has been identified as an option, though political unrest and violence there make it unlikely. Argentina has put its hand up, while Qatar, which hosted the World Cup last year and now welcomes Israelis, would obviously make a good host. Irrespective of which country wins hosting rights for the tournament and all the kudos that come with it, one thing is certain: Indonesia and its tens of millions of football fans have lost.
– Dave Smith is a pseudonym.