Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Gaza, Palestine and South East Asian politics

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In Brief

A recent article by 'reformed terrorist', Tawfik Hamid, accuses Muslims worldwide of hypocrisy in their reactions on Palestine.

Hamid's article implicitly poses one important question: why is Palestine such an important issue for Muslims around the world? Why does it set off protests in Southeast Asia, so far away? During the January Gaza bombing, Islamists closed down Indonesia's only synagogue, and the Malaysian Muslim Consumers' Association called for boycotts on a hundred American products in protest.

Far away from the conflict, Southeast Asian Muslims hear about the destruction in mosques, watch it on their screens, and sympathise with the Palestinians. Do these Muslims feel a genuine stake in Gaza? Do their protests, as Hamid insinuates, come from a global Islamic tendency towards hatred, rage and bigotry?

Whatever the case may be, there are more salient reasons.


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Palestine is an important political issue in Malaysian and Indonesian domestic politics, and foreign policy.

First, in both countries large numbers of Muslims are genuinely faithful, and feel solidarity with other Muslims. This feeling is heightened by the increased prominence of Islam in Southeast Asian public life over the last two decades.

Palestinian politics have also Islamised, and Palestinian attacks are no longer explained as part of a national liberation struggle. This is the mood in which Southeast Asian Muslims hear about the issue in mosques and as media consumers, and donate money for relief efforts. They do this as concerned global-Muslim-citizens responding to what they view as a disaster experienced by people who are like them.

Second, in both Indonesia and Malaysia Islam is deployed strategically in domestic political competition, during and outside election campaigns. Palestine is used in both countries as a platform for competition between governments and Islamist parties and pressure groups. In Indonesia, Islamist groups demanded that the government send troops to Gaza. This statement appears ineffectual, but is calculated to achieve much: both pressuring the government to be seen to act Islamically, and polarising the community, repelling those who do not agree, but drawing closer those who might.

Third, partly in response to such pressures, governments have self-consciously Islamised their politics before domestic and international audiences. This is why Malaysia demanded – through the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) – an emergency United Nations General Assembly on Palestine, and unspecified sanctions against Israel.

This call was also ineffectual, but helped the government to be seen to act. It also assists Southeast Asian Muslim countries in pursuing greater economic cooperation, especially trade, between OIC member nations, partly by positioning themselves as global leaders in ‘moderate’ Islam and Islamic finance. This, incidentally, is also why they do not speak of Rohingya refugees from Burma in terms of global Muslim solidarity.

There is wide public support for the Palestinians in Southeast Asian Muslim countries. There is a Southeast Asian politics of Palestine because political actors there are as expert as any others in strategic messages, spin, and manipulating wedge issues.

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