US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (R) greets General Secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama Yahya Cholil Staquf (L) at the Nahdlatul Ulama in Jakarta on 29 October, 2020. (Photo: Adek BERRY/ AFP)

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (R) greets General Secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama Yahya Cholil Staquf (L) at the Nahdlatul Ulama in Jakarta on 29 October, 2020. (Photo: Adek BERRY/ AFP)

Muktamar and the Future of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)

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The largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia will hold its congress in December to elect its next chairman. The new leader will have his work cut out for him.

After a year of delay, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, has finally decided to hold a congress to elect a new leader. The Muktamar will be held on 23-25 December 2021. To be held in Lampung, NU members will elect the leader who will lead the NU Executive Board (PBNU) for the next five years. The burden of leadership will weigh heavily on the new chairman.

In the run-up to the Muktamar, Said Aqil Siradj and Yahya Cholil Staquf are the two leading contenders. Siradj is the current chairman of PBNU who has served for two terms. He can run for re-election since NU’s constitution does not stipulate term limits on the NU chairman. In his eleven years of work, Siradj was at times perceived as a chairman who brought NU too close to politics. But he has brought a lot of progress in the field of education, for example by establishing dozens of NU universities. Staquf, who is the brother of the current Minister of Religion, Yaqut Cholil Qaumas, is currently the Katib Aam (supreme council secretary general) of PBNU. Supporters of both candidates claim to have received support from kyai or ulama and NU cadres. The NU of East Java, the largest constituent of the NU, has publicly declared support to Staquf.

There are three important issues that deserve special attention from the next NU chairman. First, the chairman-elect of NU has to strengthen the role of the organisation in improving Indonesia’s democracy. NU’s role as a supporter of democracy is widely recognised. This is largely the work of Gus Dur, the country’s fourth president and general chairperson of PBNU from 1984 to 1999. Under his leadership, NU contributed to transforming Suharto’s authoritarian system into a more democratic system. NU also deftly combined Islamic values, democracy and pluralism.

This NU role is increasingly needed now, when Indonesia faces the problem of democratic regression. In recent years, NU has morphed into an organisation that works with the government, yet sometimes remains critical of its policies. For example, NU supports the government in eradicating radicalism and terrorism; but it has also criticised the revision of the Law on Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the Pancasila Ideology Guidelines (HIP) bill. This balanced position should continue and be strengthened by the next chairman.

In recent years, NU has morphed into an organisation that works with the government, yet remains critical of its policies.

Second, the future chairman must be able to answer the challenges posed by the rise of conservatism. In Indonesia, NU is an important pillar of moderate Islam. In recent years, the phenomenal revival of conservative Islam has been suppressed by the Jokowi government, which has banned the Front of Islamic Defenders (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). These efforts have weakened conservatism, but that does not mean that it has been eradicated. Writing in Fulcrum, for instance, Burhanuddin Muhtadi warned that many figures from the banned FPI have founded an ‘FPI Reborn,’ which flows from the same ideological stream as the old FPI. This indicates that conservatism, which is an ideological challenge to NU’s moderate Islam, may still exist. The danger here is that such conservatism may not only grow in organisations or communities outside NU, but also intersect with internal networks within it.

Third, the next chairman of NU must be able to helm it such that the organisation is adaptive to technological developments and changes in modern society. On one hand, modernisation may have positive impacts. NU digital platforms, such as NU Online and NU Channel have become important sources of information related to the organisation and its activities. On the other hand, modernisation can also bring challenges. It is important to note that NU is built on the basis of communal Islamic society that is linked, mostly, by a network of pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) and traditional Muslim community. This bond will be challenged by developments in the digital world; in fact, modernisation may actually affect and change the pattern of interaction between people. Already, the connectivity of the Internet provides a medium for people to study religion; yet, they can do so without being physically present at pesantren. This can slowly undermine the NU bonds that have been built up by communality.

These three issues are part of the many working agendas expected to be handled by the NU’s general chairman. Other issues include internal rivalries and divisions, PKB-isation of NU (where the organisation is controlled by the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, a related political entity) and the need to keep up with the development of the sciences. How the chairman-elect of NU will respond to the three-pronged challenges of democracy, conservatism, and modernisation will determine the future of NU. He will have his work cut out for him.

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