A firestorm of controversy over how the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and democracy should respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unexpectedly dominated Indonesia’s print, broadcast and social media during the decisive final weeks of that nation’s 2018 regional election campaign, which many experts viewed as a bellwether for national legislative and presidential elections to follow in 2019.
A long-planned visit to Jerusalem by Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf — General Secretary of the world’s largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) — triggered the controversy, when the Palestinian ambassador to Jakarta sought (and failed) to block the visit, and leading politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood political party PKS and Gerindra — both staunchly opposed to incumbent President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) — seized upon the visit as a de facto campaign issue.
Gerindra’s Fadli Zon, Deputy Speaker of Indonesia’s National Legislature (DPR), condemned Staquf’s visit to Jerusalem as “a national embarrassment” whose “moral depravity” constituted a betrayal of “the Palestinian people’s struggle,” and demanded that the government “firmly discipline” Staquf who, just prior to his departure for Jerusalem, had been appointed to a 9-member Presidential Advisory Council with a protocol rank equivalent to cabinet minister.
Within hours the Deputy Secretary General of Gerindra — Nuruzzaman, a prominent NU figure and member of GP Ansor’s Central Board — resigned from Gerindra and publicly lambasted the party for insulting his spiritual leader (Yahya Staquf) and for inciting hatred towards religious minorities through its alliance with Muslim extremists and its behavior during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.
The controversy quickly turned into a de facto struggle between competing visions of Islam, which constitute a socio-cultural and political fault line within Indonesian society at large. Adherents of a pluralistic, tolerant and spiritual understanding of Islam tended to agree with Dr. Nadirsyah Hosen, who hailed Mr. Staquf’s wisdom and courage in an article posted on the Nahdlatul Ulama’s official website:
You may disagree with what Kyai Yahya did [in visiting Jerusalem]. But do not underestimate the Message of Compassion that he delivered, in order to foster world peace. This is the true Heavenly Message. You may not realize it, but the Noble Prophet was present, in Jerusalem, when Kyai Yahya delivered his Message of Compassion. . . Every Muslim who echoes the Message of Compassion that the Prophet taught, will be accompanied and defended by the Prophet Muhammad himself.
Public interest in Mr. Staquf’s message, and the controversy surrounding his visit, dominated Indonesian news coverage for the entire week he was in Jerusalem and