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Indonesian Muslims' responses to the Palestine-Israel conflict: Fragmented no more?

Fulcrum - February 27, 2024

Pradana Boy Zulian – The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel and ensuing violence has had repercussions in Indonesia, Southeast Asia's most populous Muslim-majority nation-state. Has the Palestinian issue galvanised Indonesians as one?

The escalation of the Palestine-Israel conflict since Hamas' attacks on 7 October 2023 has elicited significant responses from Muslims in Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world within its borders but is itself fragmented along the lines of ideology, politics, and affiliation. Major cleavages include the century-long rivalry between the more traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the more modernist Muhammadiyah, competition among Islamic political parties, and theological differences between Sunnis and Shi'as. Differences of opinion occur, exemplified by disagreements on which date Eid falls, for instance. More recently, Indonesian Muslims' behaviour has been characterised by distinctions in social class.

It has taken a conflict miles away from Indonesia to unite them all: the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Indonesia's dealings with Israel have historically been a sensitive issue. Political hopefuls in the recent presidential election and Indonesian leaders tread carefully around the subject so as not to upset the Muslim electorate who have strong emotions for the plight of the Palestinians and the occupation of Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site.In March 2023, then Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo expressed his opposition to the planned participation of the Israeli youth football team in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, originally scheduled to take place in Indonesia in May – June 2023. With the governor of Bali doing the same, purportedly under their party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle's (PDI-P) instructions, Ganjar framed his rejection as a collective effort to support the independence of Palestine, aligning with the mandate of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno.

Post-7 October 2023, Indonesia's Muslim groups have pledged their support for Palestinians and continue to condemn Israel while calling for a ceasefire. The two most influential and moderate Islamic civil society organisations in Indonesia, NU and Muhammadiyah, are wholeheartedly committed to endorsing the Palestinian independence movement. In October 2023, both released official statements calling for a peaceful and just resolution of the war.

General Chairperson of NU's Central Executive Board, Yahya Cholil Staquf, has underscored the importance of consistency in defending Palestinian interests since Palestine's founding (read: its declaration of independence in 1988), saying that this stance was unwavering. The General Secretary of the Central Board of Muhammadiyah (Indonesia's second-largest mass Muslim organisation), Abdul Mu'ti, has affirmed Muhammadiyah's readiness to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestine. Mu'ti also urged Israel not to exploit the conflict to pursue further annexation and aggression against Palestinian land and its people.

Conservative Muslim groups, including the Islamic Brotherhood Front (FPI), the National Movement to Guard Ulama Fatwa (GNPF Ulama), and the Alumni Association of the "212 Movement" (Presidium Alumni 212), have joined the bandwagon condemning Israel.

Even nationalists and government officials saw the political opportunity this situation provided. On 5 November 2023, numerous figures, including state ministers, officials, non-Muslim leaders and interfaith activists, joined hands in organising a "grand action" (Aksi Akbar) for the Indonesian People's Alliance to Defend Palestine at the National Monument in Jakarta.

All this indicates that diverse ideological factions in Indonesia share common aspirations and views on the Palestine issue. This is relatively uncommon within the Indonesian social and political landscape.

The solid stance taken by Indonesia's Muslim organisations across the progressive-conservative spectrum is understandable. As part of the global Muslim ummah, they could not have supported Israel's retaliation against Gaza or even Hamas. Nevertheless, the framing of the issue remains a religious one. In other words, although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involved more factors than just religion, the Indonesian public tends to see the conflict as religiously motivated. None in Indonesia have openly condemned Hamas' attacks against Israel and their kidnapping of innocent Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023.

The behaviour of politicians, religious elites, and mainstream organisations trickles down to society and shapes online discourse. The digital movements by Indonesian netizens encompass not only calls for resistance to Israeli "propaganda" but also advocating the boycott of Israeli products and expressing verbal criticism against the Israeli military through comments and direct messages on social media.

One widely embraced movement is #JulidFiSabilillah on X (formerly Twitter) and other social media platforms like TikTok. Indonesian netizens started this initiative, which was later massively joined by Malaysians and Turks. Julid Fi Sabilillah is a play on the phrase Jihad Fi Sabilillah, where julid means cynicism (typically manifested through sarcasm) and replaces the word jihad (generally translated as a meritorious effort or "struggle"). In this instance, the term julid signifies cyber assault – even doxxing – directed at the Israeli government and its military.

The politicisation of the issue and its framing in religious terms has spawned unintended consequences in Indonesia. While the political elites might have tried to outperform each other by strongly condemning Israel post-7 October, this has led to uncontrolled anti-Jewish sentiments online and offline among the general public. If left unchecked, this could damage Indonesia's image as a moderate Muslim country, which prides itself on its diversity and humanism.

Ultimately, Indonesian leaders must aspire to be the brokers of peace between Israel and Palestine. It is part of Indonesia's tradition to live with interfaith and intra-faith differences in harmony. Now that Indonesia has just elected its next president, the careful handling of the Palestinian issue will soon fall on his and his government's shoulders.

[Pradana Boy Zulian is a Visiting Fellow at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore; a Senior Lecturer at University of Muhammadiyah Malang (UMM), Indonesia, and Vice-Dean for academic affairs at Faculty of Islamic Studies UMM.]

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/indonesian-muslims-responses-to-the-palestine-israel-conflict-fragmented-no-more