For the past decade, Indonesia has been increasingly active in promoting its own version of “moderate Islam”: Islam Nusantara.
Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and its leaders began championing so-called “Islam Rahmatan Lil’Alamin” as its face of moderate Islam in 2002, in the wake of the “Global War on Terror”. Over recent years, the campaign has shifted to the new brand of “Islam Nusantara”, which Indonesian diplomats and NU leaders have promoted as an alternative to radicalism.
In 2014, NU established Bayt Ar-Rahmah, a global Muslim organisation based in the United States, to promote Islam Nusantara in the wider global context. These efforts have been supported by LibForAll, a non-profit organisation founded by long-term Indonesia resident C. Holland Taylor through his close personal links with late former President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur).
NU’s youth wing, GP Ansor, has also promoted the connected concept of “Humanitarian Islam” since 2017, rejecting Islamists’ calls to establish a Caliphate and encouraging the embrace of moderate Islamic values. NU, under current leader Yahya Cholil Staquf, will also host the G20 Religious Forum (R20), a “religious version” of the G20 that Indonesia plans to run two weeks ahead of the G20 summit, with support from religious leaders from a variety of faiths.
Global far-right supporters
Indonesia’s active promotion of “moderate Islam” has gained support from some unlikely allies – members of the far-right. Two prominent global far-right leaders who have thrown their support behind “moderate Islam” are Ram Madhav, a close associate of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Ram Madhav is general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a leader of Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu fundamentalist organisation closely associated with BJP. The organisation was established in 1925 and is now considered the most prominent far-right Hindu nationalist organisation in India.
Its members have been connected to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the demolition of Masjid Babri in 1992, and the 2002 Gujarat Riot. Modi’s tenure has also seen the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been criticised for contributing to demonisation of the Muslim community.
RSS’ ideological outlook is shaped by Hindutva, a political ideology that imagines India as a Hindu nation, and is often connected to resentment of Muslim communities (who are considered worthy of exclusion). RSS also imagines “Akhand Bharat” – an expansive understanding of an “undivided” India that incorporates modern-day India and neighbouring countries (including Pakistan, Bangladesh and even parts of Myanmar) into one Hindu nation.
Ram Madhav has engaged repeatedly with NU leaders since 2020 through his links with the National Awakening Party (PKB), the political party founded by late NU leader and former President Gus Dur and often described as the political vehicle of NU. These meetings have cemented his links with NU leaders, particularly Yahya Cholil Staquf, and Madhav’s support for R20 seems to come through this connection.
In contrast with NU, however, Madhav has embraced “moderate Islam” primarily to justify BJP’s illiberal policies in India, especially in the context of increasing sectarian tensions there.
In February 2022, Madhav wrote an article in the India-based Open Magazine to make the case for why Indian Muslims need to emulate Indonesian Islam. Referring to Indonesian Muslim practices regarding hijabs, Madhav attempted to defend a hijab ban in the BJP-led state of Karnataka.
On another occasion, Madhav used NU’s opposition to the Caliphate to demand Indian Muslims abandon three key concepts – kafir (unbelievers), ummah (the Muslim community), and jihad (struggle) — and accept the fact that many mosques (including Masjid Babri) were established during the medieval Islamic invasion of what he claims was Hindu land.
This kind of narrative of an “Islamic invasion” is not unusual among Hindu nationalists. But talk of medieval Islamic invasions and defending hijab bans are clearly at odds with NU’s longstanding efforts to promote religious tolerance and, more recently, its rejection of identity politics in electoral competitions.
Worse still, Madhav is not the only far-right leader who has backed Indonesia’s promotion of moderate Islam. Hungarian far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has also supported the Indonesian version of “moderate Islam”. But in his case, it is to defend his version of Christian nationalism and oppose liberalism and progressives.
In 2020, Orbán addressed an executive meeting of Centrist Democrat International (CDI), where he spoke alongside Yahya Cholil Staquf. Madhav also attended the meeting, but spoke on a different panel. At that forum, Orbán threw his support behind “moderate Islam” and even praised the approach for being similar to the agenda of his Fidesz political party. Rather than embracing tolerance, Orbán addressed the forum with a call to preserve “national and Christian identity” from “so-called European progressive, liberal political forces” who seek to steer society away from these values.
Orbán has repeatedly rejected multiculturalism because, in his words, it means “the coexistence of Islam, Asian religions and Christianity”, and according to him, there should be no such “mass scale” mixing of different racial and religious groups.
People familiar with the thinking of Gus Dur and his defence of the rights of religious minorities in Indonesia would no doubt find these statements peculiar, if not offensive, especially as Orbán made these comments in front of senior NU figures.
It is clear that Madhav and Orbán’s interpretation and promotion of “moderate Islam” is vastly different to the vision of moderate Islam imagined by NU. While Madhav and Orbán might adopt NU’s language of “moderate Islam”, they are exploiting the concept with very different political goals in mind – goals that would likely be repugnant to most members of NU and the broader Indonesian Muslim community.
Indonesian Muslim organisations like NU need to carefully assess any attempts at international cooperation with a proper understanding of global politics. A global project to promote Indonesian Islam abroad is a worthy endeavour, but a greater consideration of the risks is needed.
The global far-right movement has increasingly broad networks across Europe, Asia, and the United States, and its members are more than willing to politicise religion to exclude religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Engaging with far-right leaders like Madhav and Orbán is already leading to “moderate Islam” being used to justify regressive policies in other countries without any tangible benefits for Indonesian Muslims.
NU and Muhammadiyah have developed strong arguments for the importance of religious tolerance, and Indonesian Islam does have lessons it can share with the global community. But further caution is warranted. If not, the whole project risks being undermined.