Indonesia’s oldest and largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, turned 100 years old this month. The main centennial celebration was held on Feb. 7 in East Java. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which means the revival of ulemas (scholars), claims a membership of over 95 million people. It’s also said to be the world’s largest Islamic organization.
Being the largest group, questions arise over its effectiveness, contributions, failures, or challenges as it moves forward.
What amazes the world is that despite Muslims making up over 87 percent of Indonesia’s 270 million population, the country remains a secular-democratic nation. Unlike other Muslim-majority countries, where Islamic doctrine dominates their constitutions, Indonesia’s founding fathers wanted modern democracy as its way forward.
Nevertheless, the country’s day-to-day life is strongly affected by Islamic influences. The situation has irked Muslims in the radical salafi-wahhabi worldview. Wahhabism, introduced by 18th-century theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab, was a dominant sect in the Arab region and was seen as an ultraconservative movement. Its influence started to gain a foothold in the archipelago in the 19th century.
Members of this movement think that democracy is against sharia, and Indonesia should be an Islamic state. However, the NU has rejected such ideology. Instead, it has become the guardian of pluralism against the radical wahhabi movement.
Attempts to replace Indonesia’s secular ideology with sharia principles have multiplied in the past two decades since the start of the reform era marked by the fall of Suharto in 1998.
Since then radical movements have taken advantage of democracy promoted by civil society groups. At the same time, the NU has increased its monitoring and uncovered threats to the group’s mission and the Indonesian people.
Many times it has warned the government about the dangers of not taking tough action against radical groups, particularly during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Lack of action on the government’s part during his 10-year tenure provided fertile ground for the growth of the caliphate movement.
It was only under President Joko Widodo that radical groups began to get serious attention. The banning of two such groups — Hizb ut Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front — is just an example. Throughout Widodo’s anti-radical drive, the NU has stood up and defended its position to cooperate with state agencies, civil society, and religious groups in the fight against the spread of radicalism.
Having such a huge membership, is it succeeding in fighting radicalism? Why does radicalism or extremism continue to grow? In some ways, the group has successfully educated its members at the grassroots level about Islam Nusantara (Islam of the archipelago). It’s a worldview of Islam deeply rooted in local wisdom, love, tolerance, pluralism, and respect for other religions.
Radicalism or discrimination against religious minorities continues to happen because radicalism is deeply rooted in Indonesian culture. Long before Islamic State started its influence in 2014, efforts to make Indonesia an Islamic nation had already been attempted.
The arrival of wahabbism in the 18th century in some ways influenced Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosoewiryo who founded Darul Islam (Islamic Caliphate) in West Java in 1949; four years after Indonesia declared independence from Dutch colonial rule following the end of World War II. West Java province, with nearly 50 million people, remains a hotbed of radicalism.
It can be said that the NU has not been able to maximize its efforts to combat the rising tide of radicalism or extremism. But it should be noted that this cannot be done by the group alone. Support is needed from the government and elsewhere, including from other religions, such as the Catholic Church.
In addition, NU members who are mostly ordinary people, in grassroots communities, are struggling to improve their living standards, education, and health. Stunting, for instance, threatens many Indonesian children, including those of NU families.
What about its relationship with other religions, particularly the Catholic Church? Catholicism started in Indonesia in the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in Maluku. On the other hand, Islam came in the 7th century with the arrival of Arab merchants in Sumatra.
NU as a moderate Muslim organization works closely with the Catholic Church in Indonesia. In the last several decades, cooperation between Muslims and Christians has progressed significantly. The youth wing of the NU plays a crucial role in protecting churches during Christmas and Easter.
Without the NU, Christianity could have faced a more difficult journey. Whenever there’s opposition against the building of churches, NU members are at the forefront to challenge conservative groups or urge the government to protect minorities.
There’s a similarity between the Catholic approach and the NU’s commitment to spreading the Indonesian version of Islam, the so-called “Islam of the archipelago.” It refers to the spread of Islam in Indonesia through a cultural approach, not with a rigid and hard doctrine.
This approach finds a place in Indonesian Islamic discourse. But it’s not free from criticism and rejection not only in social media discussions but in real life.
A few years ago, conflicts occurred between NU members and followers of the wahhabi sect in East Java. It started when sect members shirked Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebrations or called visiting cemeteries or praying for the dead heretical.
The biggest threat is perhaps the rapid expansion of a radical understanding of Islam that reaches all corners and walks of life. The presence of these groups is not only a threat to moderate Islam but also to Christians and other religions.
Some observers underestimated the increasing signs of radicalization, saying that they won’t cause the failure of moderate Islam in Indonesia.
It may look the case now. But since radicalism and extremism are transnational issues, they should not be underestimated. It should be a challenge for the NU to become a respected global decision-maker promoting world peace, justice, and the true face of Islam.
Siktus Harson, based at Jakarta, leads the team of UCA News reporters in Indonesia and Timor Leste. A journalist of 20 years of experience, Siktus leads a group of four UCA News reporters to cover the events and trends that affect the Church in Indonesia.