Turning back Indonesia's rising tide of radicalism

The moderate Nahdlatul Ulama group is fighting hard to keep Muslims away from extremists' grasp
Turning back Indonesia's rising tide of radicalism

Members of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front demonstrate against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama over a hospital land deal in this file photo taken on April 4, 2016. Purnama, a Chinese Christian, was also accused of mocking verses in the Koran. (Photo by AFP)

The son of moderate Muslim parents, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas has a strong conviction that Islam is a religion that upholds pluralism and peace.

The 42 year old inherited the outlook from his father, a respected member of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest moderate Islamic organization. Established in 1926, the Sunni group claims to be the largest Islamic organization in the world with 90 million members.

But as he grew older, Qoumas, who was born in Central Java, realized not all Muslims held similar tolerant beliefs. More and more radical groups began to emerge in Sunni-dominant Indonesia, posing a threat not only to the reputation of Islam but also broader society.

As a young man, he joined NU's youth wing, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, the front-line guardians of pluralist Islam and protectors of persecuted minorities, including Christians. It was established in 1934 and has three million members aged 20-40.

"We are brothers. But I firmly refuse to stay in touch with fellow Muslims who want to do evil," said Qoumas who was appointed chairman of the organization in 2015.

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"They shout Allahu Akbar (God is great), but they damage houses of worship and persecute minorities. As NU cadres, we have to fight groups like this," he told ucanews.com.

Far-right extremist groups in the form of the Islamic Defenders Front are increasingly seeking political stages for their cause in Indonesia.

They succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people to rally against former Jakarta governor,  Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian who was seeking a second term.

Purnama was accused by the extremists of mocking a verse in the Koran and failed to win re-election in April 2017. In May, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy and inciting violence.

On Sept. 29, the extremists were back on the streets again, this time accusing President Joko Widodo, an Ahok ally, of undermining democracy and religion through a decree banning mass galleries and supporting communists.

The allegations arose from mudslinging during the 2014 presidential campaign when Widodo was accused of being the son of former Communist Party members. About 15,000 hardliners joined the rally, which was also staged in support of opposition Islamic parties.

However, Quomas said their accusations were baseless, and hid a thinly veiled extremist agenda.

Helmy Faishal Zaini, the NU's general secretary, said the existence of radical groups is a serious threat, making the task of moderate Muslims much tougher.

"This worries us, as these groups always try to find opportunities to show strength," he said, adding that NU always discourages its members from joining such rallies.

The biggest challenge facing NU now is how to get rid of the so-called Islamic State which has at least 600 members in Indonesia.

One method is to promote Islam Nusantara, a concept introduced last year based on cultural and pluralist approaches, to spread peaceful Islam.

In November, the organization will start an education program for 1,000 Islamic preachers in Jakarta

Similar projects have already been undertaken. In May, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor launched the Humanitarian Islam movement to counter the views and doctrines of radical groups.

In cooperation with the government's National Counter-terrorism Agency, the NU's women's wing Fatayat in April announced 500 preachers would deliver the anti-radicalism message to women and children.

"We will embrace more members. Our target is to get 5,000 preachers," said Anggia Ermarini, Fatayat chairwoman.

She added they are taking an active role to prevent radical groups indoctrinating women and even children to be martyrs.

NU is also aware that extremists have used social media to recruit followers.

In 2016, the number of Indonesians using Facebook reached 71.6 million people, WhatsApp 35.8 million, Instagram 19.9 million and Line 37.6 million.

"We encourage our followers to use social media to preach," Zaini said.

Ahmad Nurcholish, chairman of the Indonesian Conference on Peace and Religion's education division, said the NU played on important role, but cooperation with other groups was needed for the correct message to get across.

"Cooperation among Muslim groups is irreplaceable because Muslim fundamentalists not only want to target young people, women and children but to control future leaders," he said.

Father Agustinus Ulahayanan, executive secretary of the Indonesian bishops' Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, acknowledged NU's role in the fight against rising Islamic fundamentalism.

"NU is our only hope to protect this pluralist nation," the priest said.

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