Indonesia’s Moderate Islam is Slowly Crumbling
Liberal Muslims are fretting as fundamentalists seize the popular moment.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — In the struggle against Islamic extremism, few groups have been fighting for longer than Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Sunni organization that has become the global face of Indonesia’s pluralistic Islam. Founded in 1926 to prevent Saudi Arabia’s bitterly intolerant Wahhabism from taking root in Indonesia, it’s a cultural touchstone for Indonesians proud of their heritage of religious tolerance — and a symbol of moderate Islam worldwide.
But NU’s work seems to be collapsing at home. The national conversation of the last five months has been monopolized by a far-right Islamist group called the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). FPI has around 200,000 members; NU — somewhat dubiously — claims 50 million worldwide. But it’s the extremists who are setting the pace in Indonesia and threatening to transform NU in the process.
FPI has organized huge, racially charged rallies in Jakarta to protest the city’s Chinese Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, whom it accused of blasphemy for quoting a Quran verse about electing non-Muslim leaders. NU discouraged, but didn’t prohibit, its members from attending them. Some NU members, wearing the group’s scarves and holding its flags, even attended FPI’s rallies. FPI’s hyperbolic allegation went all the way to court, where the governor is now sitting trial as he runs for re-election. In charging Ahok, the police sided with FPI rather than NU, which publicly disputed the blasphemy charge. It was a stunning accomplishment for a fringe group — and one that has left the Indonesian center shaken and frightened.
NU is reliably quick to defuse anxiety about radicalism with the refrain that the “real” Islam is tolerant, peaceful, and inhospitable to jihad — especially in Indonesia. And it’s true that Indonesia has remarkably few terrorists given its population size. NU also has a prominent global profile due to its fondness for interfaith conferences, summits for Muslim leaders, and ambitious campaigns against extremism.
But there is a growing chasm between Indonesia’s national refrain about its tolerant, pluralistic tradition and the conservative populism that has breached public life. People on both sides are now waiting to see if the governor’s trial will help revive Indonesia’s moderate Muslim establishment or mark the beginning of its end.
“The Ahok affair has been a huge wake-up call,” said Alissa Wahid, a social activist, NU official, and daughter of late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid. “We have been suffering for 10 years, letting hard-liners take center stage on social issues and even commit violence,” she said. “The challenges for NU going forward are not small.”
NU was a political party until 1984 but now concentrates on social welfare and religious education, often in tandem with other faith groups, encapsulating Indonesia’s syncretic mix of animistic, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist traditions alongside Islam. The archetypal NU public figure was Abdurrahman Wahid, who was chairman of the group for 15 years before he was elected president in 1999. Yet under Wahid, far more strident groups started to elbow NU offstage.
“The prominence of liberal Muslim intellectuals like Wahid made moderate Islam seem like a stable and dominant ideology,” said Luthfi Assyaukanie, a researcher and co-founder of the Liberal Islam Network. “But before 1998, when [the dictator] Suharto fell, the media was tightly controlled and privileged the discourse of liberal, tolerant groups like NU.”
In retrospect, Assyaukanie said, the center could not hold. Suharto’s authoritarianism prioritized religious tolerance — for the sake of stability, if nothing else. But when the democratic floodgates opened in 1998, conservatives could finally organize and evangelize. FPI was founded in late 1998, the sharia-promoting hard-line Indonesian Mujahideen Council in 2000, and the reactionary Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in 2002.
“I don’t think NU adapted fast enough to the new media environment,” said Savic Ali, a young NU member who runs its website and Nutizen, a new streaming video platform. “The people who really took advantage of it were the hard right — conservative voices like that of [the celebrity TV preacher] Abdullah Gymnastiar who amass huge followings on TV and social media.” Ali is spearheading an effort to raise the digital profile of NU preachers but admits they’re playing catch-up.
Indonesian Muslims, including NU’s member base, are becoming more intensely and visibly conservative. A recent survey found that four in five public school religion teachers support imposing sharia, or Islamic law. And “more women wear hijab, more families go to Mecca, more people pray in public spaces after 1998,” Assyaukanie said.
The conservative elements within NU itself make it difficult to robustly counter these trends. Many NU ulema (religious scholars) have always been conservative, said political scientist William Liddle, at Ohio State University. “During and since President Wahid, the impression that moderates dominate NU has never been accurate.”
Alissa Wahid said growing conservatism within NU has been accompanied by intolerance. “In the last 15 years, NU members have become not just conservative in ritual but also rude, enforcing a ‘majoritarian perspective’ that dismisses all other kinds of Islam, leave alone other religions,” she said. The decentralized nature of NU is another roadblock to reform: It has always been a loose alliance of religious leaders and lay members, so there is, Wahid said, a “constant discussion” within NU leadership about how, if at all, to enforce NU directives.
Beyond these internal issues, Saudi Arabia has also invested billions of dollars since 1980 to spread puritanical Salafi Islam in Indonesia. Despite its explicitly anti-Wahhabi origins, NU has largely neglected to address the effects of this program, Assyaunakie said. “Plus, Salafi ideas are entering the organization itself, which has become steadily more conservative since the day Wahid left.”
“NU is not a good soldier for this battle vis-à-vis Salafism,” said Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, the other co-founder of the Liberal Islam Network. “It still has conservative instincts. Many members share, for instance, the fundamentalist viewpoint that Shiites and Ahmadiyya are not real Muslims; the only difference is that they don’t condone violence.”
And NU’s own efforts in the international battle against extremism may also be hampering it at home. NU’s biggest overture against Salafi encroachment was its annual congress in 2015, in which, as Margaret Scott wrote, NU leaders affirmed that “Indonesian Islam is nationalist, pluralist, moderate, and democratic … as a way to fight Salafis and Saudi influence.” The congress is part of a packed calendar of outward-facing NU meetings and conferences, which, according to French political scientist Delphine Alles, springs from NU’s unofficial role as an international ambassador for Indonesia’s moderate image.
Alles recounts how Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has promoted staging “international forums of inter-religious dialogue, a popular theme since the middle of the 2000s.” Indonesia’s director for information and public diplomacy has been “financially and logistically supporting” NU’s International Conference of Islamic Scholars since 2006. But it is a “notorious fact,” writes Alles, that “the declarations of intentions that these forums pronounce often leave their observers with a sense of frustration” because they fail to address any real points of contention.
Observers argue that the bandwidth NU devotes to targeting foreigners could be better used on promoting progressive values in terms of issues that affect its base directly. “The emphasis placed by NU elites on pluralism and tolerance has, at times, translated into support for socioeconomic policies, like forced evictions, that have had devastating impacts on the poor,” said Ian Wilson, a researcher at Murdoch University in Australia. “This seeming disjuncture between progressive social values and acquiescence to economic policies hostile to the poor may have provided openings for neoconservatives and hard-liners to capture resentment.”
In this vacuum, FPI has become an invaluable resource to embattled Jakarta slums that are targeted by Ahok’s eviction program. In April 2016, for instance, when the government threatened to evict about 1,000 residents of the Luar Batang neighborhood, FPI set up a lean charity operation that provided food, clothing, and volunteers to the poor community.
Despite these hiccups, liberal Islam remains the rule, not the exception, among Indonesia’s political parties. The catch is that politicians tend to manifest this obliquely, Assyaukanie said.
“Secular parties don’t talk about Islam in straightforward terms; they couch it in issues like ‘religious tolerance’ and ‘increasing women’s rights,’” he said. “It could help if they talked about Islam more forwardly.” Their failure to do so, he added, creates a vacuum for right-wing Islamist parties like PKS to set the agenda for political Islam in the country.
Still, Liddle thinks liberal political Islam fares far better in Indonesia than in other Muslim countries. “[Right-wing parties like] PKS, though close to being sharia parties, are small and tarnished. Compare that with most of the Arab Middle East, like Egypt, where an Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, … got 40 percent of the parliamentary vote and elected a president,” he said.
Indonesia is not alone in its ideological tumult. Malaysia, a nearby moderate Muslim country, has been edging toward Islamic law in recent years. The formally secular nation of Bangladesh is seeing many of the same cultural shifts — more women wearing hijabs, higher madrasa attendance — as Indonesia has and with apparent government support. None of the progressive parties of the Arab Spring are thriving six years later, save for Tunisia’s Ennahdha Movement.
But, according to Rice University political scientist A. Kadir Yildirim, Indonesia has an “important advantage” within the Muslim world because, “compared to most Arab countries, Indonesia has an established and vibrant electoral democracy, which provides an opportunity for many important discussions regarding modernization, religion-state, and democratization to take place in public view.”
The obvious comparison to Indonesia’s experiment in Muslim democracy is Turkey, which has been similarly blindsided by its population’s growing conservatism. Turkey, too, had a generation of Westernized liberalism under a strongman leader — Ataturk there, Suharto in Indonesia. But their ideological legacy was revealed to be less stable when democratic floodgates opened. In the wake of furious culture wars between “Black” (traditional) and “White” (urban progressive) Turks, its citizens have voted the conservative strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan into the offices of prime minister and then president for more than 13 years. Indonesia’s next presidential election, in 2019, could be a weather vane for the country’s future course following its currently moderate, globally minded president, Joko Widodo.
Maybe it’s hard for moderate Muslims to create viable political platforms because moderation, as a concept, is just difficult. It is a ceaseless balancing act, especially when simplistic right-wing parties like FPI constantly extend the range of acceptable discourse.
For Indonesian moderates, the collapse of the center elsewhere — like in the United States — is a chilling warning. “The essential problem of blasphemy with Ahok’s case is not for us to decide, but it highlights how fear and hatred of the ‘other’ have been politically exploited,” Wahid said. If the Ahok case hadn’t happened, she added, something else would have shaken the liberal establishment out of complacency.
“The protests were fine, they were manageable, and dealing with them is preferable to something like the shocking American election.” She sighed. “Hopefully it won’t come to that here.”
Credit: ADEK BERRY/ Staff
Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikavaragur