Indonesians and Malaysians Keep Gaza in Their Prayers 

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Indonesians and Malaysians Keep Gaza in Their Prayers 

For Southeast Asia’s Muslims, support for Palestine is rooted in national identity.

Indonesians and Malaysians Keep Gaza in Their Prayers 

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim address a pro-Palestine rally at the inside Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur, October 24, 2023.

Credit: X/Anwar Ibrahim

In April 2021, Israel held out an olive branch of sorts to Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had signed a landmark peace treaty with four Arab countries the previous year and believed the time was ripe for a rapprochement with the non-Arab Muslim world. Israel’s leader was hopeful that the momentum from the accords would “expand the circle of peace” to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

Diplomatic ties would bring “peace for peace, trade for trade, flights for flights, tourism for tourism, science for science,” promised Sagi Karni, Netanyahu’s point person for Southeast Asia. However, the Israeli diplomat added a caveat: “We cannot force anybody to be our friends.”

A seal of approval from Indonesia would have been a coup for Israel. In 2022, Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, told Army Radio, an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) broadcasting service, that the success of the normalization process hinged on the participation of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

But Jakarta’s response was tepid. As a scholar of political Islam at the University of Indonesia explained, “Indonesia will still gently remind them not to forget the plight of the Palestinians.”

Jakarta’s reservations were in line with the mood in Ramallah and Gaza City, where opinion polls showed a majority of Palestinians viewed the deal with the United Arab Emirates as a “betrayal.” The schism within the Muslim world over the issue of Palestinian statehood was the backdrop against which the militant group Hamas launched the October 7 attack against Israel.

Gaza is an ocean away from Southeast Asia. Yet support for Palestine is a deeply rooted in national identity among the region’s Islamic population. “Muslims across Indonesia usually pray for the people of Gaza in their Friday prayers,” wrote a former managing editor of the Jakarta Post.

Indonesia was the first nation to recognize the State of Palestine in 1988. Jakarta’s policy on the issue of statehood has remained non-negotiable for more than three decades. A 2005 paper in Jewish Political Studies Review noted that “while not inherently antithetical to Israel, Indonesia clearly places a higher value on avoiding trouble with radical Islamist elements at home than it does on normalizing relations with far-away Israel.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is supportive of the Palestinian Authority but has maintained a diplomatic silence on Hamas. An Israeli military spokesman claimed that the militant group “systematically built the Indonesian Hospital to disguise its underground terror infrastructure.” The $9 million medical facility, funded by private donations from Indonesian citizens, was located near Gaza’s largest refugee camp. The IDF targeted the building on November 20, and 12 people died in the shelling. Indonesia condemned the attack but insisted that its citizens were not involved in the day-to-day operations at the hospital.

Malaysia, on the other hand, is unabashedly pro-Hamas. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim began a recent social media post with the words, “I had a phone conversation with Hamas Head of Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh yesterday…” Anwar has ignored multiple requests from the United States to label Hamas a terrorist organization. Addressing a rally of more than 16,000 protestors in Kuala Lumpur, the Prime Minister called Israel’s retaliation against Gaza “insanity.” Ibrahim pointedly wore a keffiyeh bearing an image of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.

However, the Malaysian government faced a backlash after a video of teachers and students brandishing toy firearms at a school in Putrajaya during “Solidarity With Palestine” week went viral. The prime minister told reporters that local authorities would monitor pro-Palestine gatherings to make sure events were not spinning “out of control.”

Malaysian youth actively engage on social media around issues relating to Islamic identity. The #StandwithPalestine hashtag on TikTok was most popular in Malaysia, followed by Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Malaysia’s long-standing support of Palestine is part of a national and “religious obligation” to advocate for “oppressed Muslims” around the world. The outrage often spills into domestic politics and foreign policy. In mid-October, the Malaysian Parliament Caucus on Palestine urged countries that had normalized relations with Israel to sever their newly established diplomatic ties.

By contrast, Indonesia’s foreign minister struck a more optimistic tone. In a recent post, Retno Marsudi wrote, “It is time for us to restart & instill a new life to the peace process.”