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The ambiguous response of Indonesian Muslims to Iran's attack on Israel

Fulcrum - May 14, 2024

Syafiq Hasyim – Iran's missile and drone attack against Israel in retaliation against the 1 April air strike on an Iranian consulate building in Damascus has drawn mixed reactions among Indonesia's Muslim leaders. The theological divide, however, will limit Indonesian solidarity with Iran.

Last month, Iran retaliated against Israel by sending 300 drones and rockets across their border. The Iranian authority stated that this attack was their response to Israel's bombing of the Iranian Consulate in Syria earlier that month. Throughout the Muslim world, this retaliation is perceived negatively and positively. In Indonesia, prominent Muslim figures hope that there will be no war between Iran and Israel. However, controversial Islamist figure Habib Rizieq Shihab (and former Islamic Defenders' Front, FPI, leader) agreed with Iran's attack on Israel, saying Iran represents the Muslim world's aspiration to liberate Palestine from Israel.

Although Indonesia and Iran are both Muslim countries, they have important differences. Both are psychologically tied under a global Islamic solidarity (ukhuwah Islamiyyah) but there is still a boundary or divide when it comes to theological issues. For one, Iranian Muslims are predominantly Shia while Indonesian Muslims are predominantly Sunni. Iran is a pure Islamic theocracy but Indonesia is a democratic nation-state. Indonesian Sunni Muslims perceive Iran as practising a heterodox Islam; those Indonesian Muslims who are Shia are estimated to comprise a tiny minority of 2.5 million.

In the 1990s, Islamic discourse by Shia scholars (ulama) was well recognised and accepted as part of international Islamic scholarship. The thoughts of former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Ali Shariati (thinker and activist), Murtadla Mutahhari (cleric), Thaba'tabai (cleric and a great mufassir, a Quran exegete) and many others were freely taught at state Islamic universities across Indonesia.

This changed when former president Suharto's regime was concerned about the Islamist movement in Indonesia, which was inspired by the spirit of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In 1984, Indonesia's Council of Ulama (MUI) issued a fatwa (religious declaration) warning that Indonesian Sunni Islam should be alert against Shia – mainly the extreme Shia (ghullat Shia) – ideology.

From this point on, Indonesian Sunni Muslims' perceptions of Shia Islam changed from recognition to rejection. Although a theological issue drove this divide, for some Indonesian Sunni Muslims, theology is the principle of Islam while other factors should follow theological faith (Qaida).

In the context of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, some Indonesian Muslims admit that Iran is the bravest Islamic country in fighting against Israel and defending Palestine. Still, because of Iran's Shia theology, most Indonesian Sunni Muslims do not recognise Iran's position on Israel nor do they support Iran's retaliation against Israel. However, they are likely to react negatively when Israel attacks Hamas.

Some argue that Indonesian Sunni Muslims do not see Iran's retaliation against Israel as support for Palentine. For instance, Felix Siauw (associated with the former Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, HTI) believed that Iran attacked Israel not to support Palestine but as retaliation for the air strike on its Damascus consulate. Although this is a questionable argument that ignores Iran's longstanding commitment to Palestine's independence, this view is shared by Indonesian Sunnis.

The response of Indonesia's largest mass Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) to Iran's rocket attack was normative: NU General Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf has clearly stated that he stood for Palestinian independence. However, in the context of Iran's attack, Staquf did not have a clear response. His reaction followed the Indonesian government's, broadly stating that all parties should exercise restraint and that a ceasefire (in Gaza) should happen to avoid escalating conflict. Yahya Staquf's opponents accuse him of having close connections to the Jewish community in the US and Israel. Indeed, Staquf had an opportunity to give a talk at the American Jewish Committee's Global Forum but his opponents are overstating the connection.

However, as stated above, Islamists, including former members of the banned FPI and its various offshoots (all using the acronym FPI), agreed with Iran's attack on Israel. The FPI does not question the Shia identity of Iran and argues that attacking Israel as a Zionist country is more critical than differences between Shia and Sunni, which for the FPI are not fundamental ones. The FPI's press release declared that, "All Muslims should unite and put aside differences in ethnicity, language, madhhab (school of thought within Islamic jurisprudence), and so on to struggle (jihad) to defend Palestinian independence and the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque from the dirty hands of the Israeli Zionist invaders".

Many Islamists might assume that fighting Israel can solidify international Islamic solidarity. They might believe in the importance of treating Israel as a common enemy but in fact, Iran's attack against Israel did not create such a situation in Indonesia. The Sunni-Shia theological divide between Indonesia and Iran is still a big obstacle to shaping Islamic solidarity between the two countries.

[Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.]

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/the-ambiguous-response-of-indonesian-muslims-to-irans-attack-on-israel