May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

New leadership, new policies?

New leadership, new policies?

The Nahdlatul Ulama congress in Makassar arrests the slide away from liberal views but shows the organisation's vulnerability to outside political interference

Martin van Bruinessen

   'From the pesantren for Indonesia’
   Jeremy Menchik

There was much relief at the outcome of the leadership elections on the final day of Nahdlatul Ulama's 32nd Congress last March. A destructive struggle for the position of Rois Aam, the 'spiritual' leader of the organisation, had threatened to divide the organisation. It had been warded off when the politically ambitious Hasyim Muzadi bowed out at the last moment, leaving this most prestigious position to the incumbent, the venerable Kiai Sahal Mahfudh. The two-stage election of a new chairperson of the executive (the position held by Hasyim Muzadi for the past two terms) had been full of surprises, including the early defeat of the man who had run the best media campaign, Salahuddin Wahid, and the unexpectedly strong showing of Golkar politician Slamet Effendy Yusuf. As a result, the victory of Said Aqil Siradj felt like a victory for the world of the pesantren over outside political interests.

'We had a lot of turbulence, but you see: in the end we made a smooth landing,' one of the senior kiai told me, and at that moment I was inclined to agree with him; NU appeared to have protected itself from too overt political interference. But there were to be a few more surprises before the plane reached the gate.

As Indonesia's largest civil association (and arguably the largest Muslim organisation in the world), Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) remains by its sheer size a force that politicians have to take into account. The major contenders in Indonesia's power struggles generally try to gain its support or at least goodwill. Originally established as an association of traditionalist Islamic scholars (ulama or kiai) who typically lead traditional Islamic boarding schools known as pesantren, NU was, upon Indonesia's independence, transformed into a political party. Later, in 1984, it became a cultural-religious association of moderate views credibly claiming to represent tens of millions of followers.

The dual character of the organisation - an association of ulama and a mass organisation with a large constituency - is reflected in the dual board, in which an ulama council (Syuriyah) led by the Rois Aam is supposed to oversee the chairperson and other managers of the executive (Tanfidziyah). During recent years, the relationship between these two bodies deteriorated as Hasyim Muzadi drew the organisation into political adventures, overriding the objections of Kiai Sahal Mahfudh. The latter's victory at the congress can be interpreted as a strong statement that ulama, not politicians, should hold supreme authority in the organisation and that practical political interests should be kept at a distance. Paradoxically, however, this victory was probably also largely due to outside political interference.

During the past decade, NU had also begun to depart from some of the liberal religious views it had upheld during the 1990s, as part of a general trend towards expression of more 'fundamentalist' religious views that can also be observed in other Muslim organisations. Both Kiai Sahal and Hasyim Muzadi had in fact endorsed this trend, and young NU intellectuals and activists were deeply concerned about the future of liberal and progressive thought in the organisation. In this respect, the congress reaffirmed NU's ability to accommodate widely different views; liberals and progressives found a modest representation in the new board, alongside traditionalists and conservatives.

NU under Hasyim Muzadi

There were good reasons to believe, as many did, that the congress could be decisive for the course of NU in the coming decades, notably its ability to accommodate the expectations and demands of the more highly educated segment of the younger generation. At the previous congress, in 2004, the organisation had moved significantly away from the support for 'liberal' and 'progressive' Islamic thought that had been associated with Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) during his leadership of the organisation in 1984-1999. Hasyim Muzadi, who had succeeded Abdurrahman in 1999 (with more than a little endorsement by the latter), had soon fallen out with his predecessor and shown himself a very different type of leader: a more effective organiser and fund-raiser perhaps, but socially and religiously conservative.

Hasyim distrusted the young activists who had grown up under Gus Dur's protection and placed his own trusted people in control of the organisation at all levels. He adopted a populist, moderately anti-Western discourse and tended to ally himself with the more conservative factions of the military and political establishment. The 2004 congress, at which he secured his re-election, adopted a firm position of rejecting 'liberal' thought, declaring especially the Jakarta-based Liberal Islam Network (JIL) to be at odds with the NU worldview, and by implication also rejecting many of the other NU-affiliated NGOs that challenged established practices and ideas.

The shift in NU was part of a broader conservative turn in Indonesian Islam taking place around that time

This shift in NU was part of a broader conservative turn in Indonesian Islam taking place around that time. At Muhammadiyah's national congress later in the same year, all bodies and committees of the organisation were similarly purged of 'liberals' (who included highly respected university professors with many years of service to the organisation). The following year, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) issued its notorious fatwas against the Ahmadiyah sect and against broadly defined 'secularism, pluralism and liberalism'. The Ministry of Religious Affairs also veered to the right under the new minister, Maftuh Basyuni, a confidant of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with conservative views.

It may not be accidental that Hasyim Muzadi, Maftuh Basyuni and Muhammadiyah's new chairperson, Din Syamsuddin, all were graduates of the well-known pesantren of Gontor, which had once been known as 'modern' but under the influence of the Muslim World League had increasingly become associated with the more puritan and anti-Western currents of Islamic thought and the rejection of modernist interpretations. (Other Gontor graduates playing conspicuous public roles include the militant preacher Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and several prominent Salafis.)

The 2004 purge of the 'liberals' was not as radical in NU as in Muhammadiyah, and there were quite a few NU ulama who disagreed with the sweeping fatwas of MUI. There remained a few independent and original thinkers on the board, notably Masdar F. Mas'udi, who penned a thoughtful refutation of the MUI's anti-liberal fatwas. But they found themselves increasingly marginalised and cut off from decision-making processes in which they should have been taking part. Most of the young NU activists who had felt stimulated, supported and protected by Abdurrahman Wahid complained of being sidelined under Hasyim Muzadi. Many of the kiai appeared to follow the general conservative trend and to endorse Hasyim's anti-cosmopolitan attitude. Some of the most prominent kiai, however, felt unease about Hasyim's unbridled political ambitions, which they felt could harm NU.

Under his leadership, Hasyim drew the NU organisation more deeply into 'practical politics' than it had been since the Situbondo congress of 1984, where it had decided to withdraw from direct political involvement and to prevent its office holders simultaneously holding positions in any political party. Abdurrahman Wahid had, it is true, initiated the return to politics as early as 1999, when he established the National Awakening Party (PKB), to serve as the vehicle for the interests of the NU constituency and his own ambitions, but he maintained a clear separation between the party and NU organisation.

Hasyim, however, used NU itself as the vehicle for his political ambitions, and he used his political connections to strengthen his position within NU. In the 2004 presidential elections he teamed up with Megawati as her vice presidential candidate, and in 2009 he committed himself strongly to Jusuf Kalla's candidacy. Both forays into electoral politics ended in failure (and, some felt, humiliation for NU) but enabled Hasyim to dispense lavish patronage and buy support. On the eve of the congress, Hasyim appeared to be the strongest of the various contenders, having secured promises of support from most of the larger delegations.

Candidates for the leadership

Hasyim had announced well in advance of the congress that he did not envisage a third term as chairperson but wished to move up from the Tanfidziyah (the executive board) to the Syuriyah, the council of leading ulama. The incumbent Rois Aam, Kiai Sahal Mahfudh, appeared to have no intentions to retire, however; and in fact most of the previous Rois Aam had kept that position until their deaths. At Hasyim's initiative, new by-laws were drafted that would limit the duration of this office, as well as that of chairperson of the executive, to a maximum of two five-year periods and thereby would oblige Kiai Sahal to resign.

   Members of the old board at the first session of the congress
   Martin van Bruinessen

In response to this manoeuvre, a group of kiai and activists in Central Java appealed to Kiai Sahal to stay in office in order to prevent further politicisation of the organisation. The widely respected and popular kiai, Musthofa Bisri (a.k.a. Gus Mus) was seen by many, especially the younger members, as the ideal person to lead the organisation. None less than Abdurrahman Wahid had, only weeks before his death, attempted to persuade Gus Mus to stand for Rois Aam. However, as long as Kiai Sahal still wanted to continue in that position, Gus Mus did not wish to be a candidate.

Meanwhile, no less than seven men had announced their interest in succeeding Hasyim as chairperson of the Tanfidziyah. Three of them were already members of the executive. Hasyim himself endorsed Ahmad Bagja, a loyal and experienced but otherwise unremarkable bureaucrat of the organisation, who had been Hasyim's campaign manager in his bid for the vice-presidency in 2004. Said Aqil Siradj had run against Hasyim (and ended second) at two previous congresses; Masdar Mas'udi had challenged Hasyim (and come out third) in 2004. Both had been made members of the Tanfidziyah but were kept out of Hasyim's inner circle. A fourth candidate, Ali Maschan Musa, headed the provincial NU executive in East Java.

The other three candidates were relative outsiders. Slamet Effendy Yusuf was a leader of NU's youth movement Ansor in the 1980s but then made a career in Golkar. Salahuddin Wahid, a younger brother of Gus Dur who was educated as an engineer at the Bandung Institute of Technology, had never been active in the organisation, was a consistent and fierce critic of his brother, and was perceived to be close to the conservative wings of reformist Islam. In 2004 he had taken part in the presidential race as Wiranto's running mate, but since that venture into politics he had moved to the family pesantren at Tebuireng and appeared to be emulating his uncle Jusuf Hasjim, who had long been a prominent NU politician (and fierce critic of Gus Dur too).

The most remarkable candidate was Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, the best known member of JIL whose contributions to Muslim discourse had been judged beyond the pale in 2004. It was unlikely that he would stand a serious chance in 2010, but Ulil and his supporters appeared intent on showing that they represented an important voice within NU, with considerable support at the grassroots level, especially among the younger generation.

Money politics

Not only were there more candidates for the position of chairperson than at previous congresses, there was also more talk of vote-buying and attempts by outside interests to influence the outcome of the vote. There had been heavy-handed outside intervention before, notably at the 1994 congress when Suharto attempted to prevent the re-election of Abdurrahman Wahid, but then it had consisted of political pressure and lobbying rather than financial handouts. In 2010, more outside parties were interested in supporting or opposing particular candidates. Another reason why 'money politics' was more conspicuous was the precarious financing of the congress, which made delegates dependent on financial sponsors.

With tens of millions of nominal members - in other words people who feel more or less represented by the organisation - Nahdlatul Ulama is a politically significant entity. But these numbers do not translate into financial strength. Membership dues, paid by only a small minority, constitute an insignificant fraction of the budget, and apart from some real estate the organisation does not control any significant resources. Irregular contributions by various sponsors provided three quarters of the budget over the past five years, which amounted to a modest 40 billion rupiah, about US$ 4.2 million. The single largest sponsor, as Hasyim stated in his report to the congress, had been former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, whose bid for the presidency in 2009 Hasyim had strongly endorsed. It was no accident that the congress was convened in Kalla's home province of South Sulawesi.

In the Suharto era, it had been common for the president and vice-president to pay the bulk of the costs of the large congresses of organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama. Large companies (among which cigarette manufacturers always were conspicuous) also made significant contributions. Provincial governors commonly contributed to the travel expenses of delegations from their provinces. This time around, there was no such overall funding, and the central board and provincial and local branches had to find their own resources. (In fact, the congress had initially been planned for an earlier date but had been postponed because not sufficient money had been raised.) This opened the door for money politics.

Candidates offered to pay travel expenses and other costs for those delegates who promised to vote for them. Vote buying continued during the congress, as delegates were persuaded to shift their allegiances. A local newspaper reported that votes were sold for 25 million rupiah. This is a ridiculously small sum compared to the amounts that change hands at Golkar congresses but represents a new phenomenon at NU congresses, where other forms of persuasion were previously the norm.

The vote

To all appearances, Hasyim was in firm control of the entire congress. All sessions were chaired by people he could trust; he had in advance dispensed generous patronage to people of influence (which included a well-publicised umrah pilgrimage to Mecca for some regional NU grandees); and a firm majority of the delegates appeared to have pledged their support for his candidacy as the Rois Aam. Many branches in fact seemed to have sent staunch Hasyim loyalists as their delegates - there was a noticeable difference in attitude between the official delegates, who were mostly local organisers, and the other attendees, who included ulama and young NU activists.

However, many of the ulama present thought that Hasyim might be a good manager but lacked the depth of religious learning required of the Rois Aam, and they were scandalised by Hasyim's undisguised attempt to unseat the senior and much more learned Kiai Sahal. Efforts by senior ulama to negotiate a face-saving solution failed because both rivals declined to attend a crucial meeting. The United Development Party (PPP) proposed a senior kiai from its own ranks, Maimun Zubair, as an alternative, and rumours that Hasyim had agreed to endorse this 'political' kiai caused some additional confusion. Behind-the-scene negotiations dragged on and caused the election to be postponed beyond the return flights of some of the delegates.

Tension was high when the voting for the Rois Aam finally began on the fifth and last day of the congress. As usual, there were two rounds: in the first round, the 500-odd delegates put forward names of candidates, and in the second round those who had been proposed by more than 99 delegates and had accepted the candidacy were to compete for the position.

To the surprise of Hasyim and his allies, who had until that moment felt secure of their majority, far more delegates named Kiai Sahal than Hasyim (272 against 179), guaranteeing the former an absolute majority. Visibly shocked and deeply disappointed, Hasyim bowed out and withdrew from the race. His faction pointed the finger at President Yudhoyono, whom they suspected of having orchestrated massive vote-buying in the final days. (Hasyim after all was politically allied with rivals of Yudhoyono, and the latter no doubt had an interest in an NU board that would support him.) Several personalities known to be close to the president could in fact be seen lobbying in the margins of the congress - but so were political operators representing the Golkar, PPP and PKB parties and yet other political interests. No less important was the moral pressure exerted by several senior kiai, who persuaded their peers - and through them many delegates - that it was not 'ethical' to force the incumbent Rois Aam out of office, and that the Syuriah should remain aloof from direct political involvement.

The election of the chairperson of the executive was, if anything, even more politicised. On the eve of the congress, President Yudhoyono had received Said Aqil Siradj and Salahuddin Wahid in his residence at Cikeas, suggesting that out of the seven contenders these were the ones he endorsed. They also appeared to consider themselves the only serious candidates and refused to take part in a televised debate with the other five on their vision for the organisation's future. Salahuddin's supporters had covered the city with hundreds of banners and posters, some representing him as the heir apparent in the dynasty that had dominated NU from its inception (with his grandfather, Hasyim Asy'ari, being a founder and the first Rois Aam, his father, Wahid Hasyim, leading the organisation in the early 1950s, and his elder brother Abdurrahman Wahid the most charismatic recent leader), others with photographs of senior kiai who gave him their blessing. Said's campaign was slightly less exuberant, with banners promising he would take NU 'back to the pesantren'. The other candidates spent less money on this sort of publicity (with the exception of Slamet Effendy Yusuf, who in some huge banners posed as a bureaucrat dressed for Friday prayer, reading an Arabic book), but an overall atmosphere was created that reminded many of a pilkada (an election of a regional government head) rather than of earlier NU congresses.

The televised debate, held on the second day in one of the congress halls in front of an enthusiastic audience, was also a novelty. Slamet and Ulil Abshar-Abdallah used it effectively to present themselves as serious contenders. Slamet could boast he had played a role in preparing the changes adopted at the important Situbondo congress of 1984, and more pragmatically, that he had much experience and many contacts in Golkar (and thereby access to considerable funds). Ulil succeeded in conveying not only that he had deep roots, by family and education, in NU but also that he had reflected more than others about the course NU needed to take to remain significant to its members in a changing world. He appeared to be less isolated in the organisation than the official ban of JIL had suggested.

Ulil's showing in the first round of the vote was low, with 22 delegates putting forward his name, but remarkable under the circumstances. He had had little money to spread around, and the support of only a small but devoted team of friends vetting the delegates. Ahmad Bagja, Hasyim's favoured candidate, ended only slightly ahead of him at 32 votes, and Salahuddin Wahid, who had looked like a potential winner, received only 78, not enough to pass to the second round. The big winners were Said and Slamet, with 178 and 158 votes respectively. In the second round, Said increased his margin and garnered a solid majority of 294 against Slamet's 201. This outcome did not correspond with anyone's calculations based on the prior commitments of delegates, suggesting that many changed their minds during the five days of the congress, or even in the last hours before the voting.

Forming the new board

The Rois Aam and the general chairperson are the only officers of the organisation who are directly elected by the congress. According to the by-laws, both choose their own deputies and together these four, assisted by a number of electors (formatur) 'chosen by the Congress from among those present,' are charged with selecting the other members of the Syuriyah and the Tanfidziyah. Usually care is taken that all factions and groups present at the congress are represented, even if only in some honorary capacity without real influence. Having left little to chance, Hasyim Muzadi had made sure that the final session was chaired by a trusted loyalist, who proposed three electors and had them quickly and without any discussion accepted by acclamation. This enabled Hasyim to continue playing a role, through at least one of these electors, in the final phase, which took place behind closed doors during the weeks that followed the congress.

The trend towards a more fundamentalist and anti-liberal version of traditionalist Islam appears to be reversed

Kiai Sahal chose as his deputy Kiai Musthofa Bisri, who enjoys broad respect within NU as well as outside the organisation. Hasyim Muzadi was also appointed to the Syuriyah, initially even as another deputy Rois Aam, but after some protest as an ordinary member. Said Aqil's choice of a deputy was more controversial: As'ad Said Ali is a well-known NU personality, who wrote an interesting book on the organisation, but he also happens to be a deputy chief of the State Intelligence Agency, BIN. Many NU people used to be proud of having one of their own in a high position in BIN, but the appointment of this high intelligence officer as the deputy chairperson of the organisation gave many others cause for worry over NU's independence. Nor was this the only political appointment: Jusuf Kalla was given an honorary position as a counsellor (mustasyar), as was Jakarta's governor, Fauzi Bowo. A certain Velix Wanggai, who had no prior connection with NU but was a personal assistant to President Yudhoyono, was also named in an advisory position and only later withdrawn after a wave of protest.

Unlike most other contenders, Ulil was not offered a formal position in any section of the board, but another prominent NGO activist, Imam Azis, the founder of LKiS and Syarikat, was appointed to the Tanfidziyah. (Another NGO activist, Hilmy Ali Yafie, was named but resigned out of protest against political interference in the process.) Two other intellectuals commonly identified as 'liberals', Masdar Mas'udi and Mohammad Machasin, retained their positions in the Syuriyah. The composition of the board represents some uneasy compromises and accommodations; various political interests are entrenched in it. Yet the trend towards a more fundamentalist and anti-liberal version of traditionalist Islam appears to be reversed.

Prospects for the progressives

Said Aqil Siradj is himself not close to the liberal and progressive activists of the younger generation, but he has a track record of expressing broad-minded and tolerant views and socialising easily with people of different social and religious backgrounds. Although he obtained a doctorate in Saudi Arabia, he has had good words to say about Shi'ism and has shown an interest in Sufism as well as contemporary philosophical writers. He does not appear to have a grand vision of where to take NU, but he is likely to allow much internal diversity and defend religious tolerance and pluralism.

Kiai Sahal Mahfudh once was heralded by younger activists as the man who could help make traditionalist religious thought relevant to modern social issues, a kiai who was also an intellectual. He was one of a handful of senior kiai who in the 1990s patronised a series of workshops that brought together kiai, NGO activists, and academic experts to speak on contemporary problems and attempt to develop a new religious discourse capable of engaging with such issues. (Masdar had been the driving force and chief creative intellect of these workshops, but it was Kiai Sahal who shielded him against the criticism of more conservative kiai.) Since his election as the Rois Aam in 1999, however, he has not done or said much that was remarkable. He was very critical of Hasyim Muzadi's political ambitions but had stopped short of an open confrontation. Since 2000 he has also been the general chairperson of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia and, though he was not directly involved in its notorious anti-liberal fatwas of 2005, he never made a critical comment on them either.

Given Kiai Sahal's age (72) and apparently poor health, the position of his deputy is potentially crucial. Musthofa Bisri (65) is a colourful person, a poet and amateur painter as well as a kiai, and representative of the most tolerant and broad-minded strand of traditionalist Islam. A lifelong friend of Abdurrahman Wahid, he shared many of the latter's views though not his eccentricities, and he is the man to whom young NU activists look for moral support and inspiration. Moreover, he is Ulil's father-in-law, and appears to generally support his son-in-law even while occasionally disagreeing with him.

With this new board, NU is poised to seek a new balance between the conservatism and politicisation of the past period and the search for a new religious discourse of the 1990s. Various political interests are represented in the board, which may endanger the organisation's independence, but things could have been much worse. The slide towards fundamentalist and anti-liberal religious views is unlikely to continue under the new board and it may even be reversed. Whereas the previous leadership mistrusted the young intellectuals and NGO activists who constituted the progressive vanguard of NU in the 1990s and marginalised them, the new leadership is likely to allow them a larger role. Moreover, the 2010 congress has shown that the younger intellectuals and activists have gained some support among the rank-and-file of the organisation and at various levels of leadership.

Martin van Bruinessen ( is chair for the comparative study of contemporary Muslim societies at the University of Utrecht.

Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

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