Yahya Cholil Staquf speaking at an international conference titled ‘On Islam and Human Rights’

Yahya Cholil Staquf speaking at an international conference titled ‘On Islam and Human Rights’ organised by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights and Ministry of Religious Affairs. (Photo: Yahya Cholil Staquf’s Twitter Page)

Nahdlatul Ulama ‘Going Global’: Charity Should Begin at Home

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The newly-elected chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama has a grand vision about humanitarian Islam. In practice, however, the policy is found wanting when it comes to attending to the needs of the NU rank and file.

The election of Yahya Cholil Staquf as the new Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Chairman has energised the organisation’s rank and file (nahdliyyin) and captured the imagination of Indonesian Muslims. Some consider this the NU ‘moment’ to reinstate its role as the country’s largest Muslim organisation and promoter of moderate Islam. So far, Gus Yahya, as he is affectionately called, has not said anything that would rile up the conservatives and moderates.

A central plank of the NU leadership under Gus Yahya is to promote ‘humanitarian Islam’, or Islam that seeks to protect human beings regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, and gender. The use of the term differentiates him from his predecessor Said Agil Siroj who popularised ‘Islam Nusantara’ (Archipelagic Islam). Through ‘humanitarian Islam’, NU wants to cover both global and local problems. The deficiency, however, lies in the fine print. Whenever pressed for details, Yahya Staquf’s proposal prioritises global matters (such as creation of new world order and human rights) over domestic ones.

Gus Yahya’s pivot towards ‘humanitarian Islam’ is his way of reviving Gus Dur’s principles. He thinks that Gus Dur’s struggle for humanism during his leadership has been forgotten. Gus Yahya wants to bring this back into NU, and said as much at the Muktamar NU 2021 in Lampung. Gus Dur (or Abdurrahman Wahid) was the NU’s former chairman who led the organisation during its glory days in the 1980s and 1990s. Under his leadership, NU engaged with yet resisted Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime. Gus Dur was prone to using big slogans too, such as cosmopolitan Islam, but he never ignored the problems faced by the common people — even when this put him at cross-purposes with Suharto’s regime. One example is Gus Dur’s rejection of the New Order regime’s plan to establish a nuclear power-plant on the mountain of Muria, Central Java. NU’s Bahsul Masa’il (the NU Forum on Islamic Issues) issued a legal opinion (fatwa) rejecting the building of the plant due to the people’s concerns about nuclear dangers. In the end, the government heeded its advisory. In another example, Gus Dur’s role was prominent behind the people’s rejection of the building of Waduk Kedong Ombo, another Suharto-endorsed mega-project to build a man-made reservoir in the early 1980s. In Gus Dur’s view, the building of the Waduk Kedong Ombo would only victimise and displace the people.

While Gus Dur used his position to attend to the needs of ordinary folk, the current NU leadership’s discussion of ‘humanitarian Islam’ remains at the discursive level without underlining concrete steps to alleviate the plight facing common people at the NU grassroots. Discussing local problems would have strengthened its commitment towards humanitarian Islam. Among the issues that require serious attention from NU today include the marginalisation of minorities, social inequality, education for the underprivileged, and corruption on top of global concerns such as creation of new world order.

The need for NU to solve day-to-day problems of the nahdliyyin and ordinary folk is more pressing than ever. The new NU leadership must urgently roll out plans to solve the economic and social problems of the Indonesian people in line with its promotion of humanitarian Islam.

If the NU wants to be seen as fighting for the nahdliyyin, then it must also quickly address any conflicts over land between local governments and their communities. These conflicts have continued to fester. So far, NU’s leadership in tackling the problems faced by the nahdliyyin is absent. To illustrate, there are pressing issues at the Rembang, Wadas (Purworejo) regency, that require the NU leadership’s attention. The local government is building Bendungan Bener (Dam of Bener), officially stated as PSN (Proyek Strategis National: National Strategic Project). The government insists on going ahead with this project even though the people of Wadas — who are mostly nahldliyyin — considers it to be exploiting their land.

The current NU leadership is seen as too close to and uncritical of the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) government. This has left the NU ranks at the local and district level feeling perplexed. On the Rembang issue, the best the NU headquarters could advise is for the local government, state apparatus, and the locals to engage in dialogues in line with humanitarian principles. But this subdued approach ignores the complexity of the matter and the root causes of the conflict, which is about ownership of ancestral land. Had Gus Dur been alive, he would have tackled the issue head-on.

The situation in Rembang is similar to the agrarian conflict in Kendeng, which has been an issue since 2016. In the case of Kendeng, Pati, Central Java, the local government designated it as a mining area, and allowed Semen Indonesia, a state-owned company, to develop it. The local people of Kendeng, mostly nahdliyyin, challenged the project because of the serious ecological implications. To this day, the Kendeng case is still contentious and has not been resolved. The company continues to operate against the wishes of the locals, environmentalist groups, and even a 2016 Supreme Court ruling calling for all mining activities to cease.

Gus Yahya’s term will last until 2026. He will likely have to contend with other potential local humanitarian issues. These are not only restricted to agrarian and land issues. The need for NU to solve day-to-day problems of the nahdliyyin and ordinary folk is more pressing than ever. The new NU leadership must urgently roll out plans to solve the economic and social problems of the Indonesian people in line with its promotion of humanitarian Islam. Most of those who face the economic and social injustices are none other than the nahdliyyins. In the same manner that Gus Dur stood up against Suharto in the 1980s, Gus Yahya should take a leaf from his mentor if he wants to practice humanitarian Islam. After all, charity begins at home.

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Syafiq Hasyim is a Lecturer of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.