Is Indonesia’s Largest Islamic Organization Compromising Its Political Neutrality?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Is Indonesia’s Largest Islamic Organization Compromising Its Political Neutrality?

Leading members of Nahdlatul Ulama have become actively involved in the campaigning for next month’s election, straining the group’s traditional impartiality.

Is Indonesia’s Largest Islamic Organization Compromising Its Political Neutrality?

The flag of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesian’s largest Islamic organization.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Nahdlatul Ulama

The growing political involvement of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s most prominent Islamic organization, ahead of next month’s election marks a significant departure from its foundational ethos. Established in 1926 primarily as a social entity, NU’s recent political foray raises concerns about its adherence to its original khittah, the framework guiding its principles and actions. This transformation could significantly affect its credibility among its 100 million-odd followers and challenge the pluralistic character of Indonesian society.

NU has historically been a beacon of religious moderation and social harmony in Indonesia. It has played a crucial role in promoting tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and social welfare. However, its current political entanglement signals a shift from these noble pursuits.

Among the most prominent examples is NU’s political involvement with the presidential campaign of former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, via his vice-presidential running-mate Muhaimin Iskandar, the chairman of the National Awakening Party, who has close connections to NU. The Anies campaign has also received support from Said Aqil Siradj, former general chairman of the NU Governing Board (PBNU) from 2010 to 2021. Muhaimin, and by extension Anies, commands the support of the majority of the Indonesian Islamic Student Movement (PMII), a student organization affiliated with NU. The campaign has likewise attracted support from key Islamic educational institutions, such as the Lirboyo Pesantren in the city of Kediri in East Java, which like all pesantren (religious boarding schools) are affiliated with NU. All of these examples underscore the worrying trend of religious bodies serving political objectives.

This move away from NU’s traditionally neutral stance has been led by its leadership, particularly General Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, popularly known as Gus Yahya, who has close ties with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. In a statement in the media in September, Gus Yahya said that the Indonesian president had long worked closely with NU and said that the organization would “never be too far away” from Jokowi.

During Jokowi’s time in office, NU has received numerous grants and its officials have been appointed to various positions at key state-owned enterprises. This is because Jokowi needs NU’s help for electoral purposes, to act as a bulwark against radical Islamic groups. Maruf Amin, Jokowi’s current vice president is one of NU’s senior officials, and has informally endorsed the presidential campaign of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. This creates an impression of indirect NU support for the president’s favored candidates. Despite Gus Yahya’s directive for politically active NU officials to take leave from the organization, the NU’s General Secretary, Syaifullah Yusuf (Gus Ipul), has continued his political involvement. This is evidenced by media reports indicating that volunteers linked to Gus Ipul are actively campaigning on behalf of the Prabowo-Gibran campaign. Such developments cast doubt on NU’s dedication to maintaining its political impartiality.

Khofifah Indar Parawansa, who serves as both governor of East Java and the chair of Muslimat, NU’s women’s organization, exemplifies the intertwining of religious authority and political interests. Her open support for the Prabowo-Gibran ticket has the potential to alienate members who expect NU to remain politically neutral. Similarly, Erick Thohir, chairman of the PBNU’s Institute for Human Resources Studies and Development and minister for state-owned enterprises, is campaigning for the Prabowo-Gibran duo. Furthermore, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, the chairman of the GP Ansor Youth Movement, NU’s Islamic youth organization, who concurrently serves as the minister of religious affairs and is the younger brother of Gus Yahya, has made several statements that seemingly endorse the Prabowo-Gibran political ticket.

Yenny Wahid, a prominent NU figure and head of the PBNU’s Strategic Innovation Development Division, is another prime example of the leadership’s shift towards political engagement. Her decision to join the Ganjar-Mahfud campaign team, leveraging her significant influence within NU, reflects a trend where political involvement overshadows the organization’s commitment to religious and social welfare.

The engagement in politics of NU’s leaders not only contradicts the organization’s foundational principles but also threatens the pluralistic fabric of Indonesian society. As its leaders get drawn into partisan politics, NU risks becoming a political pawn, eroding its moral authority and the trust of millions. This politicization may foster sectarian divisions, weaken social cohesion, and challenge the foundations of Indonesian democracy.

NU’s deep involvement in the 2024 elections represents a critical shift from its role as a stabilizing force in society to a politically active entity. This transition, far from being neutral, positions NU as a significant player in political dynamics, potentially compromising its impartiality and unifying role. The active political engagement of figures like Gus Ipul and Khofifah indicates a conflict of interest, potentially damaging NU’s reputation as a guardian of Islamic values and social justice – and compromise its perceived impartiality.

NU’s political involvement risks alienating its diverse following. NU risks losing its core strength by siding in political contests – the pluralism that has been its hallmark. This politicization also jeopardizes NU’s historical role as a mediator and peacebuilder. Traditionally, NU has bridged societal divides and promoted interfaith harmony. Its political involvement, however, threatens this role, as political alignments could be perceived as endorsements of specific ideologies or interests.

Moreover, political distractions may divert NU from its essential social and educational missions. Its network of Islamic schools, social programs, and religious guidance is central to its mission. Politics could shift focus and resources away from these key activities, disadvantaging communities dependent on NU for support.

Yenny Wahid’s approach appears to offer a different and more promising perspective. By taking a leave of absence from her role in the PBNU to engage in politics, she demonstrates an awareness of the potential conflict between her political involvement and her responsibilities within the organization. This decision, while still reflective of the challenges within NU regarding the intersection of religion and politics, shows an attempt to maintain a degree of separation between her political aspirations and her role in the organization.

The creeping politicization of NU could potentially influence other religious organizations in Indonesia, potentially leading to a broader trend of religious entities entering politics. This could in turn  deepen societal divisions and challenge the secular foundations of Indonesian democracy.

NU must reassess its trajectory and reaffirm its role as a non-partisan religious and social institution. It should promote religious understanding, social welfare, and national unity over political ambitions. Failure to do so could diminish its standing and contribute to eroding trust in religious institutions as impartial guides and moral authorities.