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February 28, 2022 11:35 am

Holocaust Museum in Indonesia Highlights Internal Muslim Disputes

avatar by James M. Dorsey


Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yahya Cholil Staquf, secretary general of the 60-million member Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, at his office in Jerusalem in June 2018. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO.

Controversy over the opening of Southeast Asia’s first Holocaust museum highlights differences in the Muslim world surrounding the limits of religious tolerance and Muslims’ ability to debate those limits.

The debate about the museum in Minahasa, North Sulawesi, home to one of Indonesia’s two known synagogues, comes as the United States and American Jewish groups have pressured the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy to recognize Israel.

US and Israeli officials believe that recognition of Israel by Indonesia would help Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, follow the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

This has all happened as autocratic Arab countries seek to rebuild ties with their erstwhile Jewish communities in a bid to project themselves as beacons of religious moderation and tolerance.

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The controversy in Indonesia has focused more on the condemnation of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians than on anti-Jewish sentiment. It has highlighted sharp divisions among Indonesian Muslims in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their ability to put their differences on public display.

The Holocaust museum became a reality because of support from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And Yad Vashem’s role sparked speculation that the museum was a backdoor to furthering Israeli-Indonesian relations.

“The Indonesian government should act decisively, and immediately demolish the museum because it is provocative and its presence is not welcomed among many in this country,” said Muhyiddin Junaidi, deputy chairman of the advisory board of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top body of Islamic scholars.

Echoing Junaidi’s remarks, Sudarnoto Abdul Hakim, the group’s deputy chairman for foreign affairs, insisted that “Jewish communities and the descendants of Jewish people everywhere, including in Indonesia and North Sulawesi, should … see fairly, clearly the brutal acts that have been perpetrated by Israeli Zionists against the Palestinian people since 1948.”

Abdul Hakim suggested that Jewish leaders meet with the Council “to prevent things that are not desirable … I think this is a good step to resolve the issue in a persuasive way.”

Abdul Hakim’s potentially ominous remarks and Junaidi’s call for the museum’s destruction contrasted starkly with statements by Yahya Cholil Staquf, the newly elected chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest civil society movement that has an estimated following of up to 90 million people.

A proponent of humanitarian Islam, Staquf joined global leaders in commemorating the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month.

“Holocaust remembrance serves as a memorial and vivid reminder of the cruelty, violence, and suffering that so many human beings … have, for thousands of years, inflicted upon others. Today, in remembrance of the Holocaust and its millions of victims, Nahdlatul Ulama and I wish to raise our voices in a simple, heartfelt call: Let us choose compassion,’” Staquf said, in a virtual event co-hosted by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Unlike the Indonesian council, Staquf did not shy away from recognizing the genocide against the Jews while at the same time demanding justice for the Palestinians.

“Palestinian self-determination is a humanitarian mandate. All parties, including Hamas, Fatah, and the world community at large, must set aside their subjective interests and focus upon improving the lives of the Palestinian people,” Staquf said.

The divergence in approach between Satquf and the Indonesian Council spokesmen is about much more than the Palestinian issue. It is about what the essence of Islam should be an Islam that looks backward and nurtures grievances, or an Islam that seeks to reach out, build bridges, and find solutions.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

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