Indonesian President Joko Widodo

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is pictured here with santris of Pondok Pesantren Langitan in Tuban, East Java during his visit in 2018. (Photo: Agus Suparto/Joko Widodo/Facebook)

Nahdlatul Ulama’s Traditionalist Campaign Shaping Mainstream Indonesian Islamic Discourse


Since 2014, it has appeared as though the traditionalists in Nahdlatul Ulama have won the upper hand in influencing the Islamic discourse in Indonesia, having pushed back against hardline and conservative elements. However, the conservatives remain a critical opposition, and sharp ideological differences will keep tensions simmering.

The ‘traditionalist turn’ marks the point in Indonesia’s Islamic discourse when traditionalist Muslims reclaimed their position from the conservatives. This happened when the leading traditionalist organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) aligned with Joko Widodo’s first administration in 2014. With the government’s endorsement, NU has successfully curbed the influence of the conservatives in their campaign of religious moderation. This resulted in the dissolution of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI) in 2017 and 2020 respectively.

The traditionalists emphasise the prevention of conservatives and hardliners 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 the Islamic discourse in Indonesia took a ‘conservative turn’ when it went through a wave of Islamisation. Factors explaining this shift included an increase in Middle Eastern religious influence on Indonesia and the ‘pacifist’ Yudhoyono presidency that paved the way for Islamic conservatives to wield political power. The Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI)’s religious rulings (fatwas) and edging out of mass Muslim organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah to be the primary guardian of public morality for Muslims allowed harsher elements like the FPI to threaten bars and brothels across Indonesia and to declare ‘NKRI Bersyariah’, or Indonesia under shariah law, in the early 2000s. This was highlighted again in 2018 during the campaign for the 2019 presidential race.

This conservative turn gradually declined in influence after Widodo became president in 2014. Owing to his secular-nationalist background, Widodo cooperated with NU to provide him with political support, and in turn, gave NU many accommodations. This alliance obstructed the conservatives led by FPI from conducting ‘religious policing’ in Indonesian society.

During the Yudhoyono presidency, FPI had more leeway to act, due to Yudhoyono’s political strategy to secure support from Islamic parties by not showing hostility towards the hardliners. As his Democratic Party pushed for a nationalist-religious platform, Yudhoyono was politically captive. As a result, his administration’s policies were sometimes indecisive in responding to cases where freedom of religion was threatened, such as the Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslim minorities, and Christian groups suffering from discrimination. Yudhoyono’s presidency was also reluctant to disband FPI and other hardline groups. Consequently, the conservatives found a safe haven.

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

NU’s taking of this traditionalist turn is its response to several hardliner groups. Previously, NU’s role in shaping Islamic discourse in Indonesia had declined when the conservatives won the hearts and minds of many Indonesian Muslims, especially those in urban areas and in lower income groups, by offering jobs and other social assistance programmes. FPI succeeded NU in shaping Islamic discourse, scapegoating wealthy Indonesians and even labelling the latter as ‘non-Muslims’, mobilising many urban Muslims in several political rallies in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial and 2019 presidential elections.

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

NU’s traditionalist turn basically repeats FPI’s effective formula of economic and social assistance and allying with the ruling elite to shape Islamic discourse. The traditionalists tend to distinguish Indonesian Islam from Arabisation, tying the former into the global discourse on Islam in order to avoid more extremist or modernist trends.

The traditionalist turn commenced in 2015, with a deradicalisation programme to combat religious extremism and hardliners within Indonesian Islamic discourse. The programme emphasised a counter-narrative to curb the influence of FPI and other radical Islamic organisations. NU had demanded FPI’s dissolution in 2013, after FPI’s vandalism and attacks on religious minorities. The deradicalisation programme through religious moderation under the Ministry of Religious Affairs basically uses NU’s signature programme of Islam Nusantara (‘Islam of the Archipelago’). Islam Nusantara promotes two main themes: the appreciation of local traditions that nurture Islamic values; and tolerance and diversity. NU’s programme is also used in many Islamic higher education institutions in Indonesia to nurture religious moderation in Indonesian youth.

The second prong of the traditionalist turn is thebureaucratisation of moderate Islam within the state administration. This project targets civil servants and professionals who might have previously espoused radical thoughts. It is believed that radical Islamic views have deep roots within some elements of the state apparatus. The inauguration of an official ‘santri’day on 22 October highlights the importance of being patriotic and pious like a santri (a student in a pesantren or Islamic boarding school, or more generally a pious Muslim). There is also a scholarship scheme for santri individuals to pursue university degrees. The purpose of re-introducing the concept of santri for Indonesian Muslims is to prevent their potential attraction to extremist or hardline ideology, by offering material accommodations like scholarships and even land concessions.

The final part of the traditionalist turn is supporting the ban on Islamic groups like FPI and HTI and holding the line firmly on moderate Islam. In exchange for its strong stance against such groups, NU cadres have reaped rewards from the ruling government, in the form of strategic positions like the vice-presidency, ministerial appointments and commissions in state-owned enterprises. The position of religious affairs minister has also returned to the NU/National Awakening Party (PKB) fold, which should help NU in promoting Islam Nusantara nationwide, but it remains to be seen whether this will help or hinder intra-Islamic rivalry. For instance, in an example of how fraught the differences can be, the conservatives recently accused Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Quomas of insulting Islam when his ministry decreed that mosque loudspeaker volumes should be regulated nationwide, in response to complaints about loud prayer calls.

 While the traditionalists in NU seem to be the current frontrunners in advocating a moderate form of Islam in Indonesia, having consolidated their influence under Widodo’s presidency, the conservatives remain active opponents. This will ensure that Indonesia’s Islamic discourse stays fluid, and more shifts might occur as the 2024 elections come closer, as new power dynamics emerge.


Wasisto Raharjo Jati is a researcher at the Research Center for Politics – Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency.