Nahdlatul Ulama’s traditionalist campaign shapes mainstream Indonesian Islamic discourse

Since 2014, it seems that the traditionalists of Nahdlatul Ulama have gained the upper hand in influencing Islamic discourse in Indonesia, having pushed back against extremist and conservative elements. However, the Conservatives remain a critical opposition and sharp ideological differences will fuel tensions.

The “traditionalist turn” marks the point in Indonesian Islamic discourse where traditionalist Muslims have taken over their position from conservatives. This happened when the main traditionalist organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) aligned itself with the first administration of Joko Widodo in 2014. With the approval of the government, NU managed to curb the influence of conservatives in their campaign to religious moderation. This led to the dissolution of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (Pembela Islam Front or FPI) in 2017 and 2020 respectively.

Traditionalists emphasize preventing conservatives and extremists from dominating mainstream Indonesian Islamic discourse after the Suharto era. Martin van Bruinessen discussed the growing rise of Muslim conservatives in his 2013 edited volume on how Islamic discourse in Indonesia took a “conservative turn” when it went through a wave of Islamization. Factors explaining this shift included an increase in Middle Eastern religious influence over Indonesia and the “pacifist” presidency of Yudhoyono which paved the way for Islamic conservatives to wield political power. The religious decisions of the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) (fatwas) and stepping back from mass Muslim organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah to be the primary guardian of public morality for Muslims has allowed tougher elements like the FPI to threaten bars and brothels across Indonesia and to declare ‘NKRI Bersyariah‘, or Indonesia under Sharia, in the early 2000s. This was highlighted again in 2018 during the campaign for the 2019 presidential race.

This conservative turn gradually lost influence after Widodo became president in 2014. Due to his secular nationalist past, Widodo cooperated with NU to provide him with political support and, in turn, gave NU many accommodations. .. This alliance has prevented the FPI-led conservatives from conducting “religious policing” in Indonesian society.

During Yudhoyono’s presidency, the FPI had more leeway to act, due to Yudhoyono’s political strategy of gaining support from Islamic parties by not showing hostility towards extremists. As his Democratic Party pushed for a nationalist-religious platform, Yudhoyono was politically captive. As a result, his administration’s policies were at times indecisive in responding to cases where freedom of religion was threatened, such as Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslim minorities, and Christian groups suffering from discrimination. Yudhoyono’s presidency was also reluctant to dissolve the FPI and other extremist groups. Therefore, the conservatives took refuge.

Since Widodo became president, he has not followed his predecessor in accommodating diehards. Instead, Widodo’s alliance with NU allowed traditionalist Indonesian Muslims to reclaim mainstream Islamic discourse from conservatives and dominate Islamic preaching (da’wah) activities in Indonesia.

NU’s take on this traditionalist spin is its response to several extremist groups. Previously, NU’s role in shaping Islamic discourse in Indonesia diminished as conservatives captured the hearts and minds of many Indonesian Muslims, especially those in urban areas and low-income groups, by offering jobs and other social assistance programs. The FPI succeeded at NU in shaping the Islamic discourse, scapegoating wealthy Indonesians and even labeling them as “non-Muslims”, mobilizing many urban Muslims at several political rallies during the gubernatorial elections. of Jakarta in 2017 and in the presidential election of 2019.

Instead, Widodo’s alliance with NU enabled traditionalist Indonesian Muslims to reclaim mainstream Islamic discourse from conservatives.

The NU traditionalist essentially repeats the FPI’s effective formula of economic and social assistance and allies with the ruling elite to shape Islamic discourse. Traditionalists tend to distinguish Indonesian Islam from Arabization, linking the former to the global discourse on Islam in order to avoid more extremist or modernist tendencies.

The traditionalist turn began in 2015, with a deradicalization program to combat religious extremism and extremists within Indonesia’s Islamic discourse. The program emphasized counter-narrative to curb the influence of the FPI and other radical Islamic organizations. NU had called for the FPI to be disbanded in 2013, after FPI vandalism and attacks on religious minorities. The Deradicalization through Religious Moderation program of the Ministry of Religious Affairs essentially uses NU’s flagship program of Islam Nusantara (“Islam of the archipelago”). Islam Nusantara promotes two main themes: appreciation of local traditions that nurture Islamic values; and tolerance and diversity. NU’s curriculum is also used in many Islamic higher education institutions in Indonesia to foster religious moderation among Indonesian youth.

The second part of the traditionalist shift is the bureaucratization of moderate Islam within the state administration. This project is aimed at civil servants and professionals who may have previously espoused radical thinking. Radical Islamic views are believed to have deep roots in certain elements of the state apparatus. Investiture of an official ‘santri22 October highlights the importance of being patriotic and pious as a santri (a student in a ponderren or Islamic boarding school, or more generally a devout Muslim). There is also a scholarship program for santri individuals to pursue university studies. The aim of reintroducing the concept of santri for Indonesian Muslims is to prevent their potential attraction to extremist or radical ideology, by providing material amenities such as scholarships and even land grants.

The final part of the traditionalist turn is to support the banning of Islamic groups like the FPI and HTI and to hold the line firmly on moderate Islam. In return for its tough stance against such groups, NU cadres reaped rewards from the ruling government, in the form of strategic positions like vice-presidency, ministerial appointments and commissions in state-owned companies. The position of Minister of Religious Affairs has also returned to the fold of the NU/National Awakening Party (PKB), which should help the NU to promote Islam Nusantara across the country, but it remains to be seen whether this will help or hinder intra-Islamic rivalry. For example, to illustrate how significant the differences can be, conservatives recently accused Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Quomas of insulting Islam when his ministry decreed that the loudspeaker volume in mosques should be regulated nationwide, in response to complaints about loud prayer calls.

While NU traditionalists appear to be the current favorites to advocate a moderate form of Islam in Indonesia, having consolidated their influence under Widodo’s presidency, conservatives remain active opponents. This will ensure that Indonesian Islamic discourse remains fluid, and further changes may occur in the run-up to the 2024 elections as new power dynamics emerge.