Anti-Ahok protests: why were Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah sidelined?

Author

Ahmad Syarif is an analyst with Bowergroup Asia. He holds a master's degree from the University of Birmingham, where he wrote his thesis on the rise of hadrami religious authority in Palembang, South Sumatra.

The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), led by Rizieq Shihab, demonstrated that it was much more effective in managing street protests than Nahdlatul Ulama or Muhammadiyah. Photo by Akbar Nugroho Gumay for Antara.

 

In late 2016 and early 2017, Indonesians were shocked by a series of mass demonstrations against Jakarta’s Chinese and Christian Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama over alleged blasphemy against Islam. The protests prompted many critical analyses about an apparent backslide in Indonesian pluralism, religious tolerance and democracy.

 

But one important aspect of the protests that has been only sparsely covered is how the two largest Islamic organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which together claim to represent 75 million Indonesians, were seemingly sidelined by smaller organisations, such as the Islamic Community Forum (FUI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Persis (Islamic Union), and, first and foremost, notorious vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

 

While NU and Muhammadiyah leaders refused to endorse the protests, their members attended the rallies and proudly joined these other organisations. How could this have happened? Have the leaders of both organisations become detached from the interests of their members or have they just lost their support?

 

There were two main problems: the leaders of in NU and Muhammadiyah failed to connect their agenda and language to the grassroots level. Second, positioning themselves as “apolitical” organisations, and avoiding mobilisation and street politics, has limited their strategic influence.

 

When NU and Muhammadiyah describe themselves as “apolitical” organisations, this does not mean that they avoid any political agenda or activity, rather, they try to avoid any engagement with political parties or candidates. This strategy began under New Order, for example with NU’s “Return to the Guidelines of 1926”, which saw it withdraw from politics and focus on its role as a social and religious organisation. In the reform era, NU and Muhammadiyah have been linked with the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), respectively, but after the 2004 election both organisations severed any direct links with these parties. In secular democracies, this strategy has been fruitful – religious groups have often gained more influence by keeping their distance from a specific political party. Hindus in India, like Christians in the United States, have had some success with this tactic.

 

Other organisations, like FPI, FUI, Persis, and HTI, have an explicit political agenda, ranging from campaigning for shari’a-based regulations, promoting restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, and repressing minority groups, including minorities within Islam, such as Shiites and Ahmadis, as well as Chinese or Christian Indonesians. Nevertheless, only FPI has used violence to achieve its goals. FPI does occasionally lobby the government, but this is not its main skill.

 

NU and Muhammadiyah, meanwhile, steer clear of street politics, or what the organisations term “practical politics”. But even though NU and Muhammadiyah leaders often remind the public that they are apolitical organisations, both have ready access to political and economic elites. NU and Muhammadiyah figures often gain senior positions in ministries, the organisations receive generous financial support from the government and private sector, and some individuals go on to join the boards of private companies. Benefits are often redistributed for the sake of their organisations. This political economy chain is a crucial reason why both organisations are institutionally and economically stable.

Gap between elites and grassroots

At the same time as engaging with economic and political sources of power, NU and Muhammadiyah leaders also play an active role in promoting inter-religious tolerance and healthy relations between the state and religion. They often represent the state in international seminars and conferences to promote Indonesia’s global image as a plural and tolerant country.

 

Consequently, the leaders of NU and Muhammadiyah are becoming detached from their domestic Muslim constituents. Elites in both organisations continue to use terms such as pluralisme (pluralism) and toleransi (tolerance) but for many conservative Muslims “pluralism” is understood to mean that all religions have an equal claim to the truth, and “tolerance” entails tolerating free sex, free access to alcohol, and sometimes even pornography.

 

After more than a decade of confrontation between liberal and conservative Muslims, and influenced by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) fatwa against sipilis (secularism, pluralism and liberalism), these words have lost their meaning for conservative, and to some extent even mainstream, audiences.

 

This does not mean that most Indonesian Muslims are intolerant or anti-pluralist. In many areas of Indonesia, Muslims, Christians and other minorities live side by side. Rather, the issue is one of language. While using words like pluralisme and toleransi might remain acceptable for social groups that value individual rights, Indonesian terms like musyawarah (communal negotiation) and tenggang rasa (respect each other) will have greater resonance at a grassroots level.

 

A couple of days after the 4 November protest, Muhammadiyah chair and respected Muslim figure Haedar Nashir lamented that it was easier to attract people to a protest than to get them to the library. The statement was applauded by liberal Muslims as genuine criticism of the conservative Muslims who supported the protest, but the condescending tone of his statement painted the protesters as uneducated and left little room for negotiation. It mirrored Hillary Clinton’s mocking of Donald Trump voters as “a basket of deplorables”, demonstrating a similar gap in perspective with constituents. Despite Haedar’s direct call to avoid the anti-Ahok protests, Muhammadiyah Youth was actively engaged in several protests and one of its senior members, Pedri Kasman, testified in court against Ahok.

 

This gap in language and narrative between elites and their members exists within NU too. The organisation’s chairman, Said Aqil Siradj, warmly welcomed Ahok to the NU headquarters. Meanwhile, NU’s Jakarta branch said that based on a decision made at NU’s 30th national congress, known as Muktamar Lirboyo, which was held in 1999, Muslims were required to vote for a Muslim leader.

Aversion to street politics

NU and Muhammadiyah leaders refused to endorse the protests in Jakarta because they saw them as intolerant but also because they refuse to engage in street-level politics. This is partly because their leaders have access to political elites, so street politics is unnecessary. Both NU and Muhammadiyah are among the most active civil society organisations in lobbying the government. Muhammadiyah, for example, successfully challenged the law regulating national oil and gas regulator BP Migas at the Constitutional Court. Muhammadiyah has called this approach “Constitutional jihad”, referring to activism within bureaucratic framework. NU follows a similar approach.

 

The second reason that NU and Muhammadiyah eschew mass mobilisation and street politics is that they view such tactics as “low politics”. Their leaders, Said Aqil and Haedar, therefore lack the skill to manage public agitation and this put them in an awkward situation when they tried to interfere with the recent protests in Jakarta. In contrast, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab embodies this skill.

 

In Indonesia, and in many other parts of the world, people on the street have led to regime change. Street mobilisation should be viewed as simply another political tactic, just as valid as lobbying or bureaucratic approaches. While NU and Muhammadiyah dismiss street politics, FPI has proven to be highly effective and efficient in managing street politics. It was a savvy choice to connect the anti-Ahok protests to Friday prayer, as Muslims from all sects agree that it is an obligation.

 

To gain support from a wider Muslim audience, FPI also moderated its language as the protests progressed. For example, it tried to limit anti-Chinese language that might have been deemed too crude for moderate and white collar Muslims. FPI publicly stated that it was not anti-Chinese or Christian, even inviting Chinese figures, such as Lieus Sungkharisma, to give speeches at the protests. Painting the 2 December protest as a religious gathering, FPI was able to attract hundreds of thousands of people. NU and Muhhamadiyah simply do not have these skills.

What next for NU and Muhammadiyah?

The Jakarta governor’s election has shown that NU and Muhammadiyah need to retune their language to better connect with grassroots Muslims. They need to use a more diverse set of political tactics. It is time for NU and Muhammadiyah to bring discussions on tolerance and pluralism out from air-conditioned seminar rooms and libraries and on to the streets.