Last summer, Alan Brill, an American rabbi and professor of Jewish studies, taught a course on comparative mysticism at Indonesia’s Gadja Mada University. He also visited several Islamic colleges, as well as some Christian and Hindu ones, where he lectured on the basics of Judaism. He describes the moderate and tolerant form of Islam that predominates in Indonesia, and comments on the attitudes and perceptions of his erstwhile students and colleagues:
Judaism is no longer officially recognized as a religion since there are not many Jews in Indonesia. They were briefly included at the founding of the state before they emigrated to Australia and the U.S. There is a trend of recent conversions to Judaism clustered in several cities, which deserves its own discussion. There are also Muslim Judeophiles who study Hebrew and Jewish books.
[Most Indonesian Muslims] do not accept the stringent interpretations of theology and shariah that arose in the Middle Ages and afterward. . . . When I asked Muslim graduate students in my classroom, or local Muslims in the city of Jogja (Yogyakarta), how they felt about the anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, or anti-Hindu writings of the medieval theologian and jurist ibn Taymiyyah, or similarly intolerant conservative Islamic thinkers, they answered that these writing have no authoritative status and are followed by Salafist Muslims, but not by themselves.
At each Islamic college, I visited, I began my talk by introducing myself and my religious background as a Jewish American, a rabbi, and a professor. And in each place, I began by recounting how the medieval Fatimid traders who originally brought Islam to Indonesia included Jews among them. We have responsa from the Cairo Genizah permitting wives back home in Egypt to remarry after Indonesian shipwrecks. Indonesians understood these as analogous to the similar fatwas permitting remarriage for the Muslim traders.
I was repeatedly warned to prepare for abrasive questions from the students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But these questions never came.