“Nahdlatul Ulama and the Framing of an Ideological Battle in the 2019 Indonesian Elections” by Ahmad Najib Burhani

2019/26, 7 March 2019

At a seminar organised on 25 Feb 2019 by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Yenny Zannuba Wahid of the Wahid Foundation described a divide in Indonesia’s Islamic landscape in the context of the forthcoming 2019 presidential elections.

The divide is animated by two different ideological leanings supported by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and certain Islamist groups, particularly the banned Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir (HTI), respectively. The former is against the establishment of a caliphate, the adoption of syariah as positive law in Indonesia, the implementation of religion-based by-laws, and staunchly supports the principles of NKRI (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia).   In contrast, the latter champions the implementation of syariah law in Indonesia, transforming it into “NKRI Bersyariah”, and some of them even support the Islamic caliphate.

The NU believes that the Islamist groups, including the ex-HTI, are supporting and operating within the Prabowo camp.  It sees Hasyim Djojohadikusumo’s (Prabowo’s brother and founding member of Gerindra) statement that the Gerindra Party and Prabowo’s camp welcome any group to join them, including ex-HTI and ex-communist party (PKI) members, as indicative of that position.
In framing this election as an ideological battle, NU has been “cancut tali wondo” (fully and actively involved) in supporting Joko Widodo’s camp. The NU believes that more than just a regular election is at stake this time round, including Pancasila (the Indonesia state ideology that supports pluralism) and what is known as moderate Islam. In other words, there is fear that Joko Widodo’s loss could lead to the transformation of Indonesia into NKRI Bersyariah, or the government would implement an exclusive Pancasila, giving particular emphasis to the first pillar, Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa (Believe in Only One God).
NKRI Bersyariah implies that all regulations in this “Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia” must comply with Syariah law. Furthermore, implementing an exclusive Pancasila would mean promoting orthodoxy to the point of not tolerating Penghayat Kepercayaan (native faith follower) and those that are considered deviant sects, like the Ahmadiyah and Syiah.
Besides the issue of the ideological battle, NU has also thrown its full support behind Joko Widodo because of the incumbent’s decision to choose Ma’ruf Amin, former rois ‘am (supreme leader) of NU, as his running mate. For NU, as both Hasyim Muzadi (former chairman of the NU) and Salahuddin Wahid (former president Abdurrahman Wahid’s brother and an influential leader of the NU) had lost previously as vice-presidential candidates, the stakes are high.  It would be catastrophic for NU’s standing to suffer a third loss.
What remains unclear is whether NU members are more likely to support Joko Widodo because of the ideological framing, or because they want to see Ma’ruf Amin become vice president. If it is the former, that will have a more deeply polarising effect on Indonesia’s Islamic landscape. If it is the latter, there is a certain degree of dissonance because Ma’ruf Amin used to be part of the groups that are now attacking Joko Widodo.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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