KH Yahya Cholil Staquf was elected leader of Indonesia’s influential Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) during the December 2021 NU congress. (Photo: Bayt Ar-Rahmah)

The New Nahdlatul Ulama (NU): ‘Islamic Party No; Islamic Politicians Yes?’


Newly elected NU Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf campaigned on a platform to depoliticise NU in the run-up to the next elections. But NU's new leadership line-up suggests otherwise.

In 1970, Indonesian intellectual Nurcholish Madjid coined the phrase ‘Islam Yes, Islamic Party No.’ The impact of these famous words, mainly directed at leaders of Islamic parties using religion for political ends, was noticeable. By the mid-1980s, prominent Muslim Indonesian elites, key Islamic organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, and Islamic political parties supported the Pancasila ideology and renounced the concept of an Islamic state for Indonesia. The five principles of Pancasila include the belief in Almighty God, the sovereignty of people, national unity, social justice, and humanity.

Five decades after Nurcholish first uttered his famous phrase, the subject of delinking Islamic organisations from politics has re-surfaced. In December 2021, during the NU congress in Lampung, KH Yahya Cholil Staquf (or Gus Yahya) campaigned to depoliticise NU and emerged victorious in the polls. 

In the congress, Gus Yahya defeated incumbent KH Said Aqil Siroj with a 337-210 margin. Gus Yahya’s campaign to distance NU from political parties contributed to his triumph. He explicitly stated that NU would not be involved in nominating president and vice president in the upcoming 2024 presidential election. In the 2019 election, NU leaders had proactively lobbied for a senior NU leader Ma’ruf Amin to be the country’s vice-president. Gus Yahya’s statement also intended to keep NU at arm’s length from the PKB (National Awakening Party), a political party made up of NU members, which was formed in 1998, after the fall of Soeharto. His views reflected the sentiments of NU grassroots— the nahdliyyin—who want NU to remain a social and religious organisation. Gus Yahya’s position aligns with the organisation’s 1984 decision to reverse its status as a political party to a social, religious organisation, which was the original basis of NU’s formation in 1926. The move, carried out under the chairmanship of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (or Gus Dur), was referred to as “Kembali ke Khittah 1926″ (Return to Khittah 26). Evidently, developments since the fall of the New Order in 1998 saw NU, by virtue of being the largest Muslim mass organisation in Indonesia, being dragged into the thick of Indonesia’s elite politics. The question now arises whether Gus Yahya, as the newly elected NU chairman, can reverse NU’s political inclinations since then.  

On 12 January 2022, Gus Yahya announced the NU leadership line-up for 2022-2027. The announcement of the new NU board drew mixed reactions. To Gus Yahya’s credit, the appointments reflected some diversity of members from various backgrounds. In an unprecedented move, two women – Alisa Wahid, Gus Dur’s daughter, and Khofifah Indar Parawansa, the governor of East Java and Gus Dur loyalist – were co-opted into the leadership board. 

Since the fall of the New Order in 1998, [Nahdlatul Ulama] has been actively involved in political parties … Gus Yahya needs time to reverse this trend, though appointing politicians to the board in his first term is not a wise move in the right direction.

However, the new line-up only confirmed that for NU, political considerations and the need to pander to politicians remain inseparable. The number of appointments of the executive body (tanfidziyyah) and shura consultative body (syuriah) exceeds the previous board. The NU chairman clearly wanted to appease many NU cadres. But it is the appointment of many prominent political party leaders and government staff sitting in the PBNU board membership that has begun to undermine Gus Yahya’s credibility. In the leadership ranks are Nusron Wahid (Golkar politician) as vice general chairman; Syaifullah Yusuf (mayor of Pasuruan, East Java) as secretary-general; and Mardani Maming (PDI-P politician). Many NU cadres question whether NU can fully distance itself from politics when many political and government figures sit on its board. The fact that Gus Yahya’s brother, Yaqut Cholil Qaomas, is currently the minister of religion and a PKB politician only cements the doubt that NU can be politically independent. 

Nonetheless, despite all the criticisms levelled at him, Gus Yahya should be given the space to chart NU’s march towards political neutrality forward. As a moderate and progressive theologian, he can potentially bring NU’s concept of Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam) to greater heights and appeal in the Islamic world. The concept underscores the significance of appreciating the local, cultural conditions when applying Islamic teachings. Undoubtedly, the organisation may be facing some inertia to reform. Since the fall of the New Order in 1998, it has been actively involved in political parties, a 180- degree turn from its 1984 pledge. Gus Yahya needs time to reverse this trend, though appointing politicians to the board in his first term is not a wise move in the right direction. 

Gus Yahya’s statement that he can control political parties’ political interests by including political figures from various political parties in the NU board may not serve his purpose of distancing the organisation from politics. Gus Yahya must reinstate NU’s Khittah 26 again during his tenure, and this is an ideal time to do so since NU will celebrate its centenary in 2026 under his leadership. He is, after all, formerly Gus Dur’s prodigy and spokesperson, and the Kittah 26 happened during his mentor’s tenure.  

Historically, NU leaders have always eyed the minister of religion post in the cabinet. They have always wanted the post for themselves and do not want it to be given to its rivals in Muhammadiyah. But if Gus Yahya is sincere about reforming NU, he must underscore the importance of ensuring that NU members who join politics or government do not hold any key post in the organisation. Right now, with politicians co-opted into the leadership ranks, NU’s stance appears to be an adulterated version Nurcholish’s statement. NU now represents ‘Islamic party, No; Islamic politicians Yes!’ The ball is in Gus Yahya’s court to correct this. 


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

Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.