On 24 December 2021, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, concluded its 34th national congress (muktamar) in Lampung. Congress delegates elected Yahya Cholil Staquf, the former general secretary (katib aam) of the organisation, as its next leader. He handily defeated his immediate predecessor, Said Aqil Siradj, 337 votes to 210.
The new NU chair comes from a family of prominent NU clerics. Yahya’s father, Cholil Bisri, was a legislator from the United Development Party (PPP) during the Soeharto era and co-founded the National Awakening Party (PKB) after Soeharto fell.
Meanwhile, his uncle, Mustofa Bisri (“Gus Mus”), is a prominent NU cleric and poet, and was a close confidant of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (“Gus Dur”), NU’s long-term chairman (1984-1999) and former president (1999-2001). Gus Mus briefly served as NU’s supreme leader (rais aam) from 2014 to 2015.
Yahya has a strong record as a member of NU’s leadership board and in Indonesian politics. He served as presidential spokesperson under Gus Dur and was a member of Jokowi’s Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres) from 2018 to 2019.
Yahya is also well known for his promotion of NU’s vision of moderate Islam on the international stage. He is listed as a founder of the Bayt ar-Rahmah (“House of Mercy”) Foundation. Headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the foundation seeks to promote “Humanitarian Islam”, based on the concept of Islam Nusantara (“Islam of the Archipelago”), NU’s semi-official ideology since 2015. Humanitarian Islam aims to “recontextualise the teaching of orthodox, authoritative Islam” and challenge “problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy” that are sometimes used as a justification for violent extremism.
As part of his advocacy efforts, Yahya has travelled frequently to the United States, Europe, and Israel, where his 2018 meeting with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created controversy among more conservative Muslims, including some within NU’s own ranks.
Yahya’s election as NU chairman could therefore increase the organisation’s international profile. This is something that the NU leadership has long desired, as part of attempts to boost NU’s “soft power” and promote its version of moderate Islam beyond Indonesia.
Another change the organisation is likely to see under Yahya will be greater representation of women. Yahya recently appointed East Java Governor Khofifah Indah Parawansa and Alissa Wahid, a prominent NU activist and daughter of Gus Dur, to the NU leadership board. It is the first time the board has included women among its members, signalling Yahya’s commitment to promoting gender equality in the organisation.
A key pledge made by Yahya during his campaign was to return NU to being a politically neutral organisation. There has been growing concern among NU members that the organisation and some of its senior figures have become too involved in politics.
This trend is seen most clearly in the appointment of former NU supreme leader Ma’ruf Amin as Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s vice president in 2019. Other NU activists have also been recruited as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and board members of various state-owned enterprises. This has led to concerns that the organisation has become too closely aligned with the Jokowi regime.
Yahya has already taken steps to make good on this promise. Immediately after the election, Yahya declared that his first initiative as NU chairman would be to prohibit NU leadership board members from running for elected office, including the presidency and vice presidency.
But other observers have raised doubts about how successful Yahya will be in promoting political neutrality. For example, Muhammad AS Hikam, a senior NU activist who was also a cabinet minister under Gus Dur, said he expected NU’s endorsement would again influence the outcome of the next presidential election, due in 2024. NU represents a potentially huge voting bloc, particularly in provinces such as Central Java, East Java, Lampung, and South Kalimantan, where NU followers represent a significant part of the population.
Others have also expressed scepticism about Yahya’s claim that he will distance NU from the Jokowi regime. Just hours after Yahya’s election, Rumadi Ahmad, a staffer with the Office of Presidential Staff, who is also chairman of Lakpesdam (a NU affiliate organisation that promotes interreligious dialogue and cooperation), issued a statement saying that the president was very pleased with Yahya’s election as NU chairman. He also stated that NU would continue to work closely with the Jokowi administration, and would support its recent efforts to promote “religious moderation”.
In his opening address at this year’s muktamar, Jokowi promised to offer state land and mining concessions to NU, which the organisation plans to use to support its efforts to build NU-affiliated universities, clinics, and hospitals in every Indonesian district (kabupaten). This initiative indicates that NU wants to rival Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organisation, which has long run these social services across the country.
Muhammadiyah has managed to develop these services largely through the philanthropic contributions of its members. NU, on the other hand, seems dependent on state resources and patronage to extend its social services. If this continues, it will raise further questions about Yahya’s commitment to political neutrality.
Yahya’s appointment as new NU chairman marks a new chapter in the organisation’s near century-long history of promoting an Islamic interpretation that is moderate and grounded in Indonesia’s own religious customs and traditions. While the new chairman has publicly pledged to return NU to being a politically neutral organisation, signs suggest it may well retain its close ties with the Jokowi regime, working with the government to promote the brand of “moderate Islam” Jokowi endorses at home and abroad.
Whether NU will is able to implement these initiatives while retaining political independence, particularly as the 2024 presidential election gets closer, remains to be seen.