Nahdlatul Ulama’s new leader promises not to mix religion and politics – Eurasia Review


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By Tria Dianti

The new head of Indonesia’s largest Muslim mass organization has said he has no intention of getting into the political fray or being drawn into the communal politics that has divided people in that nation. religiously diverse in recent years.

Yahya Cholil Staquf, nicknamed “Gus Yahya”, was elected chairman of influential group Nahdlatul Ulama in late December, when he defeated two-term holder Said Aqil Siradj and three other candidates in a vote at the 34th UN Congress .

“I have said from the start that I don’t want to run for president or vice-president, nor do I want anyone from NU to run for president or vice-president. This way, NU will not be involved in identity politics at all, ”Yahya told BenarNews in an interview last week.

By “identity politics” he was referring to a common divisive trend that has recently infiltrated politics in the predominantly Muslim nation. Indonesia has long been known for its moderate Islam and general tolerance for religious minorities.

NU, which claims to have 90 million members, for most of its existence, has been regarded as a moderate and more progressive faith-based institution.

On several occasions before the UN Congress, Yahya expressed his determination to restore to the group the idealism, the spirit of inclusion and the humanity embodied by the late Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who – as the centenary approaches from the birth of NU – remains one of the most revered figures in its history.

Gus Dur, a longtime president of NU, then served as president of Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, in 1999-2001, during the early years of its transition to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule. Yahya, 55, was the presidential spokesman under Gus Dur.

Most recently, Yahya remained close to the seat of power when he was appointed a member of the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres) during President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first term.

In his view, the UN should play a role in healing the scars and polarization in society resulting from identity politics, which have manifested themselves in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election.

Ma’ruf Amin was Jokowi’s running mate in that election, as was vice president.

But in 2017, Ma’ruf was among those who called for the impeachment of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, governor of Jakarta who was a member of the Sino-Christian minority, for alleged blasphemous remarks Ahok allegedly made during the election. the electoral campaign for his re-election. . In 2017, Ma’ruf was president of NU and he sat on the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), the main group of Islamic clerics and scholars in the country.

A year before the Jakarta gubernatorial elections, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a conservative Muslim group that the central government has since banned, carried out mass protests in the streets of the nation’s capital demanding arrest and the prosecution of “Ahok” for the alleged blasphemy.

In May 2017, a district court in Jakarta found Ahok guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to two years in prison. Ahok then lost the 2017 gubernatorial election.

Some Indonesians viewed the verdict as politically motivated and suspected the judges had succumbed to pressure from conservative Islamic groups.

Yahya said fundamentalist Islamic groups such as the FPI and Hizbut Tahrir, a pan-Islamic political organization that dissolved in 2018, were not entirely responsible for wanting Indonesia as the most populous majority Muslim nation. of the world, respects the concept of caliphate. .

“We know they have political reasons for their choices to be radical or fundamental. We have to engage them, we have to try to make them understand that their political choices are no longer realistic, ”he told BenarNews in a 45-minute telephone interview on December 31.

“We can no longer impose a universal caliphate in the context of today’s modern reality.”

He also expressed optimism that NU could mediate in seeking a common framework to reduce, if not hold back, radicalism and fundamentalism in the country.

“Obviously the way to do it is to persevere and campaign as hard as possible to prevent identity politics. We need to encourage political actors to build consensus that they will not use identity, especially religious identity, as a political weapon, ”Yahya said.

Controversy in Israel

In 2018, Yahya sparked public controversy in his country when he accepted an invitation from the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) to deliver a speech in Jerusalem on resolving religious conflicts.

At the time, Yahya was still a member of Wantimpres. The Indonesian public criticized him over the invitation because he was seen as having dampened Indonesia’s support for the Palestinian people.

But Yahya said he made the trip in his personal capacity and as an ordinary Muslim who yearns for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not as a representative of the government or the UN.

In early 2020, at a meeting of leaders of different faiths at the Vatican, Yahya said that the world’s religious leaders agreed to come together to reflect on how religion works and how it responds to conflict in the 21st century.

“Religion must also find its new function. This is the first and it requires a separate process, ”he told BenarNews.

As he said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved fundamentally, including by clarifying the territorial borders in accordance with international law. Until the borders are clarified, it will be difficult for Israel to gain political recognition, including establishing diplomatic relations with Indonesia, he said.

“Many of these territorial borders are unilateral claims of Israel and surrounding Arab and Islamic countries. This must be resolved first. So if, for example, Indonesia says it is normalizing its relations with Israel, which [Israel] is it? The boundaries must be clear so as not to cause new problems, ”he said.

The interview with the new UN president came days after reports emerged that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in meetings with Indonesian officials in Jakarta last month, discussed the possibility that Indonesia normalizes its relations with the Jewish state.

Yahya has also proven himself in the international community.

In 2014, he was listed as one of the founders of Bayt Ar-Rahmah, a California-based religious institute that promotes Islam’s main message as a source of universal love and compassion.

He was tasked with serving as a member of the expert panel formulating the policies of the US-Indonesian Interfaith Executive Council, which was set up after an agreement signed between President Barack Obama and Jokowi in October 2015.

Yahya was also appointed envoy of the youth movement of Nahdlatul Ulama and the National Awakening Party (PKB), the political vehicle of NU, to forge political networks in the international community and in Europe.

He said he believed that Indonesia should contribute to the development of the world order in accordance with its constitutional mandate of 1945. He also expressed the hope that his activities could project the image of peaceful and moderate Islam. in Indonesia.

“I think the Indonesian government should take bolder action with a concrete program to solve the existing problems, to penetrate international politics,” he said.

“[T]o defend anyone who is treated unfairly, to seek a better future for all, including our brothers in Palestine or our brothers [the] Uyghurs in China. This even includes non-Muslim groups who also suffer persecution in predominantly Muslim societies. “

Yahya said that even though he is now president of the UN, Bayt Ar-Rahmah will continue to function as usual as he has yet to continue his Islamic humanitarian mission, which includes a campaign to eliminate the use of the term “kafir” (unfaithful) in modern Islamic doctrine.

“The status of non-Muslim or infidel is a symbolic object of hostility, discrimination and persecution,” he said.

“We can no longer tolerate or allow such vulnerability because the world has become an integrated neighborhood, and we have to live side by side,” Yahya told BenarNews.

“Needs to be supported”

Syafiq Hakim, senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the International Islamic University of Indonesia, praised Yahya’s stated intention to rekindle Gus Dur’s visions and missions, but said it would require the support of all parties. .

“If he does not want to get involved in politics by being a presidential or vice-presidential candidate, it seems that he really wants to reinstate the values ​​of Gus Dur. But of course, we don’t know if that would be applicable with NU. Because when it comes to NU it has so many layers and not all academics have an open perspective, ”Syafiq told BenarNews on Thursday.

According to Syafiq, if Yahya succeeds in reviving the old progressive values ​​of NU, other mass organizations with diverse perspectives and efforts will likely follow, including Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization.

“It’s a program of work that I think is difficult and needs support, although I have no idea how it’s going to end. However, I completely agree with the program proposed by Gus Yahya, and he must put it forward, as the leader of the largest mass organization that protects minority groups, ”he said. .

The PKB, the political party associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, was created to express the aspirations of the organization in response to a political crisis during the reform era, which began in 1998 with the fall of President Suharto, the dictator of long time.

Gus Dur initially refused the idea because he didn’t want NU to leave his khittah ”(original oath) by mixing religious and political matters. However, Gus Dur eventually gave in because he saw it as the only way to fight Golkar, the party associated with Suharto, the authoritarian ruler and former military leader.

According to another observer, it is fitting that Yahya wants to keep NU out of politics in Indonesia. Yon Machmudi, an expert on Islamic politics at the University of Indonesia, said he hoped Yahya would not be brought in to mobilize the great mass of NU in a political contest.

“If he stays on track with his program, it will be a major breakthrough … returning to NU’s core mandate as an Islamic religious organization beyond the struggle for political power,” Yon told BenarNews .

If NU is forced to get involved in politics, it will undermine the organization’s core values ​​and its mission to help strengthen society, he said.

“I think his statement that he would take NU away from politics is good and important, so that he can make sound decisions on political choices without having to run for president or vice president, which could potentially causing friction at the local level. I think it’s an ideal situation, ”Yon said.

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