A refusal by the governor of Hindu-majority Bali to host an Israeli soccer team at this May’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup puts the Indonesian government, football association, and foremost Muslim civil society movement on the spot.
Wayan Koster’s refusal threatens to lead FIFA to deprive Indonesia of its hosting rights, which oblige it to allow national teams to compete irrespective of whether countries recognise one another.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) stripped Malaysia of its right to host the 2019 World Para Swimming Championship because it refused to allow Israel to participate.
“We request the Minister adopt a policy of banning the Israeli team from competing in Bali. We, the provincial government of Bali, declare that we reject the participation of the Israel team to compete in Bali,” Mr. Koster wrote in a March 14 letter to the youth and sports ministry a day after the minister resigned because he was elected deputy chairman of the Indonesian Football Association.
Indonesia has refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel as long as it fails to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.
The rise of a far-right, ultra-nationalist, and religiously ultra-conservative Israeli government has further dampened already dim hopes that the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and democracy would follow the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states in recognising Israel soon.
This week, the Indonesian foreign ministry condemned Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotric’s denial of Palestinian existence. “Indonesia continues to consistently support the Palestinian people’s struggle,” the ministry said.
Earlier, ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah asserted that Israeli participation in the FIFA tournament would “not weaken Indonesia’s consistent position on Palestine.”
If world soccer body FIFA deprived it of its hosting rights, Indonesia would suffer a setback in positioning itself as a Southeast Asian sports powerhouse. In addition, Indonesia would lose its spot in the championship.
Indonesia qualified for this year’s tournament as the host rather than because of its performance in qualification matches.
Mr. Koster’s refusal was celebrated by Muslim oragnisations, including the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), which groups the country’s top clerics, and Muhamadiyya, the country’s second-largest civil society movement with tens of millions of followers. The groups this week protested Israeli participation in the tournament.
The refusal and the protest shine a spotlight not only on pro-Palestinian sentiment in Indonesia but also the at times blurred distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment.
To be sure, the slogans of the protest were anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish.
Even so, Israel has sought to spin crossovers between the two to discredit all criticism as anti-Semitism.
The controversy over Israeli participation in the Bali tournament also highlights the outreach to Jews and other faith groups by Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate civil society movement.
Nahdlatul Ulama has been a driving force in reforming Islamic law to rid it of supremacist concepts. Some 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic scholars in 2019 replaced the notion of the kafir or infidel with that of a citizen.
In addition to tackling problematic concepts in Islamic law, Nahdaltul Ulama has been at the forefront of efforts to take inter-faith dialogue beyond hollow, feel-good, lovey-dovey declarations by putting historical grievances, truth-telling, and the troubled histories of Islam and other faiths on the agenda.
Nevertheless, Aan Anshori, a young Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholar, cautions that antipathy in Indonesia toward Jews is “culturally deep-seated.”
“The key to turning this around is to instill the importance for coexistence between Islam and other faiths today,” Mr. Anshori said.
Last year a poll showed that 51 per cent of Indonesian Muslims had serious misgivings about having Jewish neighbors, 57 percent opposed allowing Jews to teach in public schools, and 61 per cent objected to Jews becoming government officials.
Also last year, the alliance of Islamic scholars on the Javan island of Madura, a region with a history of intolerance, and a conservative cleric who identifies himself as a Nahdlatul Ulama associate, protested against the participation of an Argentinian rabbi, known for her advocacy of human rights, in a summit of religious leaders organised by the group under the auspices of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
“I am an NU (Nahdlatul Ulama) member, rejecting (the leadership’s) efforts to bring the Jewish rabbi, Silvina Chemen, to Indonesia… The infidels from the children of Israel have been cursed through the words of Prophet Dawud (David) and Prophet Isa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary),” said Luthfi Bashori Alwi.
A Sunni Muslim mob armed with machetes and sickles attacked and burnt a Shiite-majority village in Madura in 2012, killing a 45-year-old woman and seriously injuring several others.
Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Cholil Staquf set the tone for his leadership by addressing, shortly after his election in January 2022, the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Holocaust Remembrance Day as well as the Palestinian embassy in Jakarta at about the same time.
Calling for compassion, Mr. Staquf referred only obliquely in his Wiesenthal Center speech to the Palestinians and other repressed groups.
He noted that “Holocaust remembrance serves as a memorial and vivid reminder of the cruelty, violence, and suffering that so many human beings — acting in the name of their ‘group identity,’ whether ethnic, racial, religious, or political — have, for thousands of years, inflicted upon others. This pattern of malignant behavior continues to threaten humanity, and civilization itself, to the present day.”
Mr. Staquf was more explicit in his speech at the Palestinian embassy.
“If the people of the world fail to ensure a better, more noble future for Palestinians, humanity will have failed in its collective responsibility to ensure a better future for everyone, by fostering the emergence of a global civilization,” Mr. Staquf said.
Mr. Staquf is one of two Nahdlatul Ulama leaders, alongside former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, to visit Israel. Mr. Wahid travelled when he was head of Nahdlatul Ulama rather than when he was head of state.
Discussing his own experience Ezra Abraham, a 29-year-old Indonesian Jew, suggests that engagement with others as well as frank and honest dialogue as pursued by Mr. Staquf produces results.
“Part of the problem (in Indonesia) is that the decades-long invisibility of the Jewish people has made us into the convenient, never-seen bogeyman,.. At past interfaith events, (Indonesian) Muslim participants were initially uncomfortable when I told them I was Jewish. But by the end of our frank discussions, most would’ve modified their stance,” Mr, Abraham said.
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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.