Drowned out by the raucous voices of Islamic political parties and confrontational hardline groups, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah are being squeezed out of the picture, which analysts fear could ultimately damage Indonesia’s brand of pluralism and tolerance.
The two groups boast a combined membership of 80 million and share a common goal of upholding Islamic teachings, but increasingly, it is the political parties and radical groups that are pushing the boundaries and setting the pace in trying to define what Islam stands for with their attacks on what they deem immoral behavior and deviant practices.
In 2008, for instance, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) lobbied for an anti-pornography law which banned some traditional cultural dances that were considered too sexy. Meanwhile, radical groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir have made the headlines for attacking religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyah sect.
‘The order now has changed,’ said Broto Wardoyo, an analyst in terrorism studies at the University of Indonesia.
‘Political parties have taken on greater weight while groups like the Hizbut Tahrir have grown louder. They are easily heard, seem to attract an audience and can be remembered better.’
This development worries some Islamic scholars such as Zuhairi Misrawi, chairman of the Moderate Muslim Society, who fear an erosion of religious freedom if groups like NU and Muhammadiyah fail to speak up loudly enough and do more to put their stamp on community issues.
Zuhairi’s non-governmental organisation comprises mainly academics and intellectuals.
Agreeing, Syafi’i Anwar of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism, added that sensational acts by radicals tend to grab attention.
NU and Muhammadiyah ‘need to find a way to remain in people’s minds’, he said.
That could prove challenging for the two organisations which were founded with relatively simple aims: to preserve Islamic teachings and provide community services.
NU, which turned 85 years old just three weeks ago, was set up by religious leaders, while Muhammadiyah, which is 99 years old, was founded by a Muslim scholar.
Together, they run more than 30,000 mostly religious schools across Indonesia.
NU is the bigger of the two, is seen as more traditional and has a large network of village boarding schools. Muhammadiyah, with 30 million members, draws a more middle-class crowd. It runs orphanages, hospitals and charity foundations.
With 80 per cent of the country’s 240 million people identifying themselves as Muslims - making Indonesia home to the world’s largest Muslim population - the role of these two organizations in shaping Islamic thought is crucial: Their messages are seen as able to influence even Muslims who are not their members.
Once they too had formidable political clout.
After the fall of President Suharto in 1998, NU and Muhammadiyah leaders set up rival political parties. Amien Rais, leader of Muhammadiyah, formed the National Mandate Party while Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, set up the National Awakening Party, and later became president between 1999 and 2001.
However, in the past few years, especially after Gus Dur’s death in 2009 and as civil society blossomed, the political influence of both groups has waned even as extremist voices become louder.
Ms Robin Bush of the Asia Foundation in an opinion piece noted: ‘There is a perception expressed within both organisations that they are facing an identity crisis as the country modernizes.’
Added Mr Broto: ‘In the past, we used to identify people by their membership of the NU or Muhammadiyah. Now we say this person is PKS, this person is FPI, that other person is Hizbut Tahrir.’
The radical groups have also become emboldened by their seeming ability to get away with little or no punishment for acts like raiding stalls selling alcoholic beverages and killing Ahmadiyah sect members.
The authorities’ weak response, said Syafi’i, is ‘allowing such radical groups to hog the limelight’.
The numbers of hardliners are small, estimated at less than 1 per cent of the population, but their voices are louder because their extreme acts draw media coverage.
Some observers believe that a number of these groups are funded by political or military elites for their own interests. Law enforcers, meanwhile, hesitate to rein them in for fear of being seen as anti-Islam.
To be sure, both Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsudin and NU chairman Said Aqil Siraj have done their bit to condemn the actions of radicals. ‘We have been doing a lot of work such as preaching the positive side of Islam in our schools, holding seminars and talks, but they are not reported,’ said Said.
‘It does not mean we are not doing such work. Our plans are still running and we remain relevant.’
Analysts agreed that Muhammadiyah and NU still have an important role to play in nurturing the moderate ground, given their huge grassroots networks.
But to make sure their message gets through, the NU youth wing last month formed a new unit. Called Densus 99 - after the crack Densus 88 anti-terror squad - its mission is to counter the spread of radical views among the young.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia.