Nahdlatul Ulama faces significant divisions between traditional, hard-line, moderate and liberal members. Even vigilante groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) claim allegiance to NU.


The fall of the New Order and its restrictions on freedom of expression and association have seen social and political Islamic organisations flourish. But recent years have also seen significant internal divisions emerging within the two largest organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.


These internal divisions have meant NU and Muhammadiyah present at times conflicting or unclear positions on issues such as the rights of followers of local or traditional faiths (kepercayaan lokal), the rights of minorities within Islam, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Indonesians. The best example is the protests against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. There were disputes within the leadership of the two organisations that reverberated among the membership base about how to respond to the case.


These types of disagreements can be seen as a normal part of managing large, democratic organisations. But NU and Muhammadiyah achieved their status and influence through efficient internal consolidation and by presenting a coherent narrative to the public. Why have internal divisions in NU and Muhammadiyah increased in the post-authoritarian period, and how have they influenced the two organisations’ religious and political positions?


During the New Order era, Islamic scholars were usually attached to organisations that were recognised by the state. Law 8 of 1985 on Social Organisations demanded that all organisations must embrace Pancasila as their sole ideology. The New Order monitored religious scholars’ activities tightly, sometimes with force, as the 1984 Tanjung Priok tragedy demonstrated. It was risky for Islamic scholars who were not affiliated with a legal organisation to attempt to compete with those from recognised organisations.


After the fall of Soeharto, restrictions on freedom of association were lifted. The 2013 Social Organisations Law uses softer language than the 1985 version, and states that social organisations must not contravene the Pancasila or Constitution. The repressive state apparatus has been much weakened – although as the recent ban against Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) has shown, the state is not against considering methods to repress Islamic organisations that some would argue are non-democratic.


In any case, the post-New Order era has been associated with significant changes in how religious teachings are disseminated. These are a consequence of the now relatively free public space available for religious activity, as well as increased interaction with Islamic ideas and teachings from abroad, especially from the Middle East.


In traditional Islamic communities typically associated with NU, the role of the kyai as religious leaders, and pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) as centres of traditional Islamic teaching, remain undisputed. Almost all kyai are attached to or associated with pesantren. Kyai play crucial roles outside pesantren, especially in leading rituals such as prayers for the deceased (tahlilan), Qur’anic study sessions (pengajian), communal feasts (slametan), or pilgrimages (ziarah). Kyai also commonly teach Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) beyond pesantren walls, but often focus on lighter-weight topics such as prayer, the hajj and compulsory alms giving; family law; or commercial matters. Serious (and sensitive) religious topics such as monotheism, core matters of belief or faith (aqidah), and sources of Islamic Jurisprudence (usul fiqh) are usually discussed within the pesantren inner circle.


There have been two important changes in traditional Islamic communities over recent years. The first is the rise of new religious scholars, including a new wave of Sufi religious scholars from the Sayyid community commonly called habib, as well as liberal NU scholars. These emerging religious scholars bring new religious teachings, which often differ from the NU tradition. For instance, the rise of habib has seen Sufi prayer rituals like Ratib increase in popularity, leading to a decrease in the popularity of the NU tradition of Istighosah, a collective prayer to ask for God’s help. Some habib also espouse views that are significantly more conservative and less tolerant of minority rights. Conversely, modern liberal NU religious scholars’ political and social views may also clash with the views of traditional kyai. Liberal NU scholars may advocate for individual rights, interreligious marriage or LGBT rights, which traditional kyai might find hard to accept.


Second, there has been a change in the types of topics favoured by informal Qur’anic study and recital groups. In the past, Qur’anic study and recital groups (pengajian and majelis taklim) in urban areas like Jakarta, Surabaya or Palembang also focused on the less-weighty issues of Islamic jurisprudence. But recently, debate over matters of aqidah has become popular in urban Qur’an study groups. This is deeply concerning for senior kyai, who believe that aqidah involves serious topics that should only be discussed within the pesantren environment or with senior Islamic scholars. Further, a focus on aqidah often results in labelling non-Muslims as infidels (kafir), which fuels intolerance. This development is common to both NU and Muhammadiyah Qur’anic study groups.


Muhammadiyah also faces an additional challenge from the Tarbiyah movement, a puritanical educational movement that draws its inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood. Tarbiyah movement members are often recruited into, and engaged by, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the now-banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Acknowledging the challenge it posed to his organisation, Muhammadiyah Chair Haedar Nashir in 2006 wrote a book titled Tarbiyah Movement Manifestation: How Should Muhammadiyah React? Nashir expressed concern that the Tabiyah movement could not only lead to Muhammadiyah losing members but also derail the achievement of its larger political and religious goals.


Of course, Muhammadiyah has long been affiliated with the National Mandate Party (PAN). But while PAN has drawn on and sought to capitalise on the Muhammadiyah base for political purposes, it has not tried to influence Muhammadiyah religious affairs. The Tarbiyah movement, meanwhile, uses religious teachings to justify its global Islamic movement. Religious texts from Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir scholars are discussed and distributed among Muhammadiyah university students and wider communities, creating conflict with the teachings of Muhammadiyah’s leadership and provoking internal conflict.


For Tarbiyah political activists, there should be no separation between religion and state. The core principles of aqidah should not be subordinated to any ideology, including the state ideology of Pancasila, which both NU and Muhammadiyah support. Although the Tarbiyah movement began in the 1980s, it has become increasingly significant in the post-Soeharto era because it no longer needs to operate underground and has legitimate vehicles through which it may pursue its political goals, such as PKS and (until recently) HTI.


The rise of the Tarbiyah movement has had two major consequences for Muhammadiyah in addition to the potential for it to eat into Muhammadiyah’s membership base. First, the anti-secular and transnational nature of the Tarbiyah movement has infiltrated Muhammadiyah, endangering the organisation’s relationship with the state. To tackle the Tarbiyah movement’s narrative about the state, during Muhammadiyah’s 47th national congress, Chair Nashir promoted the Pancasila state as a national consensus that all Muhammadiyah members should support.


Second, Tarbiyah followers within Muhammadiyah aim to revitalise Muhammadiyah’s commitment to the purification of Islam. Tarbiyah followers aim to rid the traditional Muslim community of “TBC” (a pun on the abbreviation for tuberculosis in Indonesian): Takhayul (mysticism), Bid’ah (religious innovation) and Churofat (heresy). This move could reignite old tensions between Muhammadiyah and NU, since most of NU’s religious practices are considered “TBC” by puritans.


Despite experiencing similar challenges with internal divisions, NU and Muhammadiyah find themselves in different situations. Within NU, despite massive fissures between traditional, hard-line, moderate and liberal members, all factions unite under the term Ahlussunnah Wal Jamaah, which broadly means “followers of the sunnah”. Even notorious vigilante organisations like FPI proudly declare they are part of NU and Ahlussunnah Wal Jamaah. This is problematic, as many of FPI’s rituals are indeed similar to mainstream NU practices. NU’s moderate kyai and habib have access to FPI members, just as conservative FPI preachers have access to NU followers. This religious intersection explains the emergence of the NU Garis Lurus (The Right Path) movement, which hailed Riziek Shihab as representing the true Ahlussunnah Wal Jamaah.


Muhammadiyah, meanwhile, has lost members to other organisations, such as PKS, HTI or non-political Tarbiyah groups. Despite the fact that Muhammadiyah and the Tarbiyah movement have the same theological roots, Tarbiyah groups are highly disciplined in their teachings and their members only interact with religious scholars from their own circle. Even relatively conservative Muhammadiyah leaders like Din Syamsuddin have no access to the Tarbiyah movement.


This division has direct implications for both organisations. It has already made it difficult for them to consolidate internally, and the elections later this year and next will make it harder. Politicians are aware of these divisions, and some are targeting specific factions within NU and Muhammadiyah for political engagement, which could end up provoking further discord. Nevertheless, divisions don’t necessarily need to lead to disunity. Divisions and disagreements are part of the normal dynamics of large organisations, and mature organisations like Muhammadiyah and NU should be able to manage them. The current divisions are significant, however, for how the organisations forge political alliances, especially with government actors, how they relate to other organisations, and their organisational positions on topics such as tolerance, minority rights and electoral politics.


All these things could become much more difficult and unpredictable if internal divisions continue to grow in NU and Muhammadiyah, weakening them both.


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