Reconfiguring Jokowi’s partnership with NU and Muhammadiyah

With 57.3 and 9.3 million members, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah respectively have played critical roles in legitimising the compatibility of Islam and democracy and discrediting extreme religious teachings in Indonesia. Aware of their power, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has formed strong partnerships with NU and Muhammadiyah in an effort to counter religious extremism.

Despite these efforts, NU and Muhammadiyah have recently distanced themselves from the Widodo government. This was seen when NU and Muhammadiyah publicly opposed Widodo’s decision to conduct local elections amid the pandemic and rejected the drafting of the controversial job creation law.

This rift is the result of Widodo’s instrumental view of these organisations. While Widodo sees NU and Muhammadiyah as pivotal for consolidating and legitimising the state’s counter-religious extremism policies, he has not yet considered them important stakeholders in other strategic areas, such as human rights, environmental protection and the economy. This is a miscalculation. By adopting this view, Widodo underestimates the capability of these organisations to adopt critical views of his policies.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview with Reuters at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, 13 November, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

Widodo’s engagement with NU and Muhammadiyah has been largely underpinned by a shared concern about the rise of religious extremism and conservatism in Indonesia. To push back against this trend, the Widodo’s government collaborates with these organisations to disseminate ‘moderate Islam’, a brand of Islam believed to be capable of fostering tolerance and pluralism.

Under the Widodo administration, the state tends to view NU and Muhammadiyah as partners in combating religious extremism and protecting Indonesia’s internal security. This view is problematic because it reduces the complexity of their religious outlooks.

For the state, these organisations are valuable because their moderate values are instrumental for limiting conflictsmitigating religious extremism and protecting stability. NU and Muhammadiyah indeed share these concerns. But it would be a mistake to assume that their religious outlooks can be reduced to their opposition to religious extremism. For example, Muhammadiyah has always been concerned with inequality and sought to redress this through its Al-Ma’un theology. Young NU intellectuals have established a national front for mobilising NU’s doctrinal resources to counter widespread environmental crisis in Indonesia.

This illustration reveals that the state has reduced the complexity of NU’s and Muhammadiyah’s religious discourse. While the state selectively accentuates elements of the discourse that benefit its efforts to uphold Indonesia’s internal security, it overlooks elements that are not directly beneficial for its interests. This does not imply that NU and Muhammadiyah would dismiss their religious outlooks in favour of the state’s security-centric view of religion. Instead, despite being overlooked by the state, these outlooks continue to shape NU’s and Muhammadiyah’s views on Indonesian politics.

NU’s and Muhammadiyah’s opposition to the job creation law is illustrative. Political pragmatism may indeed contribute to this opposition. But it is equally shaped by NU’s and Muhammadiyah’s religious outlooks.

The state has failed to find a middle path between the interests of the rich and the people. Said Aqil Siroj, the chairperson of NU, argues that the law contravenes the spirit of religious moderation, for it prioritises the interests of ‘conglomerates, capitalists, and investors’ over those of ‘labourers, farmers, and the people’. Likewise, Busyro Muqoddas, the chairperson of Muhammadiyah, suggests that the law is ‘morally deficient’, as it is undemocratically formulated and systematically privileges the interests of the rich.

As Widodo views NU and Muhammadiyah mainly as partners in upholding Indonesia’s internal security, he has underestimated their capacity to credibly influence the state’s policies. This judgement clearly contradicts the track records of NU and Muhammadiyah. After all, activists from both organisations played important roles in opposing Suharto’s New Order.

Widodo appears unprepared to handle NU’s and Muhammadiyah’s opposition to the job creation law. As these organisations publicly voiced their protests, Widodo scrambled to send his ministers to explain the policy to these organisations. This indicates that these organisations have been left out of deliberations. Yet they are far too important to be neglected.

This reflects Widodo’s failure to fully appreciate the complexity of NU’s and Muhammadiyah’s religious outlooks. His instrumental view of these organisations has led him to believe — somewhat naively — that these organisations would not openly challenge his policies because they have formed strong partnerships with the state to combat religious extremism. The reality is that the religious outlooks of these organisations can always be mobilised to counter the state. Their partnerships with the state do not pacify this capability.

Since Widodo relies heavily on NU and Muhammadiyah to consolidate his image as the guardian of Indonesia’s pluralism, this rift may negatively impact his personal brand. Without the support of leading civil society organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah, it will be a challenge for Widodo to assure the public that his policies against religious extremism are not disguised attempts to quell legitimate opposition.

The situation will become even more challenging for Widodo as Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islam Defender Front (FPI, or Front Pembela Islam), returns from exile in Saudi Arabia. Capable of energising Indonesian Islamists, Shihab may exploit vulnerabilities around Widodo’s legitimacy. Confronted with this situation, Widodo should dismiss his instrumental view of NU and Muhammadiyah and begin to genuinely consider the views of these organisations in policy areas beyond religious extremism.

By : Rizky Alif Alvian (Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta) – EAST ASIA FORUM

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