Nahdlatul Ulama’s new leader faces a difficult choice: political neutrality or patronage

The newly elected leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Yahya Cholil Staquf. Photo by Wahyu Putro A for Antara.

On December 24, 2021, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, concluded its 34th national congress (muktamar) in lamping. Congress delegates elected Yahya Cholil Staquf, former General Secretary (katib aam) of the organization as the next leader. He easily defeated his immediate predecessor, Said Aqil Siradj. 337 votes to 210.

The new NU leader comes from a family of prominent NU clerics. Yahya’s father, cholil bisri, was a United Development Party (PPP) MP during the Soeharto era and co-founded the National Awakening Party (PKB) after Soeharto was overthrown.

Meanwhile his uncle Mustofa Bisri (“Gus Mus”), is a prominent NU clergyman and poet and was a close confidante of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (“Gus Dur”), the long-time Chairman (1984-1999) and former President (1999-2001) of the NU. . Gus Mus briefly served as supreme leader of the NU (raises aam) from 2014 to 2015.

Yahya has a strong record as a member of the governing body of the NU and in Indonesian politics. He served as the President’s spokesman under Gus Dur and was Member of the Presidential Advisory Board of Jokowi (Wantimpres) from 2018 to 2019.

Yahya is also known for promoting the NU vision of moderate Islam on the international stage. He is considered the founder of Bayt ar-Rahmah (“House of Mercy”) Foundation. Headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the foundation seeks to promote “humanitarian Islam” based on the concept of Islam Nusantara (“Islam of the Archipelago”), the semi-official ideology of the NU since 2015. Humanitarian Islam aims to do this away, “recontextualize the lesson of orthodox, authoritative Islam” and questioning “problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy” that sometimes exist used as justification for violent extremism.

As part of his lobbying work, Yahya has traveled frequently to the United States, Europe and Israel, where he has been his meeting in 2018 with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked controversy among more conservative Muslims, including some within the NU’s own ranks.

Yahya’s election as NU chair could therefore raise the organization’s international profile. This is something the NU leadership has long wanted as part of their effort Reinforcing NU’s soft power and promote his version of moderate Islam beyond Indonesia.

Another change the organization is likely to see under Yahya will be greater representation of women. Yahya recently appointed East Java Governor Khofifah Indah Parawansa and Alissa Wahid, a prominent NU activist and daughter of Gus Dur, to the NU Board. It is the first time the board has included women among its membership, signaling Yahya’s commitment to promoting gender equality within the organization.

An important promise made by Yahya during his campaign was to restore the NU to a politically neutral organization. There is growing concern among NU members that the organization and some of its senior figures are getting too involved in politics.

This trend is most evident in the appointment of the former supreme leader of the NU Ma’ruf Amin as Vice President of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2019. Other NU activists were also recruited cabinet minister, ambassador, and board members various state-owned companies. This has led to concerns that the organization has become too closely associated with the Jokowi regime.

Yahya has already taken steps to fulfill that promise. Immediately after the election, Yahya stated that his first initiative would be as NU chairman Ban members of the NU board from running for elected office, including the presidency and vice presidency.

However, other observers have expressed doubts about how successful Yahya will be in promoting political neutrality. For example, Muhammad AS Hikam, a senior NU activist who was also a cabinet minister under Gus Dur, said he expected support for the NU to again influence the outcome of the next presidential election, due in 2024. The NU represents a potentially huge electoral bloc, particularly in provinces such as Central Java, East Java, Lampung, and South Kalimantan, where NU adherents make up a significant portion of the population.

Others have also expressed skepticism about Yahya’s claim that he will distance the NU from the Jokowi regime. Just hours after Yahya’s election, Rumadi Ahmad, an officer in the Office of the Presidential Staff, was also elected Chairman of Lakpesdam (a NU affiliate that promotes interfaith dialogue and cooperation) issued a statement saying the President was very pleased with Yahya’s election as NU Chair. He also stated that the NU will continue to work closely with the Jokowi government and support its recent efforts to promote “religious moderation”.

In his opening speech at this year’s muktamar, Jokowi promised to offer State land and mining concessions to the NU, with which the organization plans to support their efforts to build NU-affiliated universities, clinics and hospitals in every Indonesian district (kabupaten). This initiative shows that NU wants to compete with Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, which has long run these social services across the country.

Muhammadiyah has managed to develop these services largely through the philanthropic contributions of its members. NU, on the other hand, seems to rely on government funding and patronage to expand its social services. If this continues, more questions will be raised about Yahya’s commitment to political neutrality.

Yahya’s appointment as the new NU chairman marks a new chapter in the organization’s nearly century-old history of promoting an Islamic interpretation that is moderate and based on Indonesia’s own religious customs and traditions. While the new leader has publicly pledged to restore the NU to a politically neutral organization, signs suggest it will maintain its close ties to the Jokowi regime and work with the government to brand the “moderate Islam,” that Jokowi supports to promote at home and abroad.

Whether the NU will be able to implement these initiatives while maintaining political independence, especially as the 2024 presidential election approaches, remains to be seen.

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