[Updated at 6:03 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, to add details on Muhammadiyah congress held this week and background]
Jombang, East Java. President Joko Widodo is calling on Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, to increase its role as a representative of moderate and peaceful Islam and to address the issue of extremism wreaking havoc in the Muslim world.
Joko said NU, which is one of the oldest Islamic organizations in Indonesia and has an estimated 60 million followers across the archipelago, has played a significant part in supporting and preserving the pluralistic spirit of the nation since its establishment in 1926.
He called on NU members to hold fast to the group’s “moderate Islamic values,” but also increase its role in curbing Islamic extremism by helping address the root cause of the rising global phenomenon.
“NU, which has promoted moderate values of Islam since its birth, can heighten its partnership with various parties in order to build a just global order, especially in regards to eradicating poverty, backwardness and inequality — which are the root cause of terrorism and radicalism,” Joko said in his speech during the opening ceremony of NU’s National Congress in Jombang district, East Java, on Saturday evening.
The president reminded the audience of how NU founding figures had contributed to the establishment of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia — proof of the organization’s commitment to nationalism and pluralism.
“As a role model for the promotion of an Islam which is ‘rahmatan lil alamin‘ [a blessing for the entire universe]… NU members must make Islam their guide in building an advanced community — those who make religion a source of advancement, justice and peace.”
Joko cited his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, saying the latter had been “impressed” with the role of moderate Muslim groups, such a NU and Muhammadiyah, in promoting a tolerant and peaceful face of Islam in Indonesia.
Muhammadiyah is Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization. NU is generally seen as traditionalist in orientation while Muhammadiyah is more modernist.
Cameron visited Jakarta for two days last week to boost bilateral trade and promote British investment in Indonesia, as well as to forge a cooperation between the two countries in addressing the growing threat of religious extremism and terrorism – especially after the rise of the jihadist Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq.
Joko also touched on the Tolikara incident in Papua, where a small mosque was reportedly burned to the ground as part of a riot during the Idul Fitri holiday last month.
Although Muslims make up the majority of Indonesia’s 250 million population, they are a minority in Papua, where most residents are Christian.
The incident incited hate speeches against Christians across social media platforms – although it was later discovered that the mosque was not intentionally burned, but had accidentally caught fire during a riot .
Still, the brouhaha brought to light threats faced by religious minorities anywhere in Indonesia – whether they are Christians in predominantly Muslim regions or vice versa.
Members of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah and Shiites have suffered their fair share of intolerance in recent years, with security officials receiving heavy criticism for failing to protect them.
“The Tolikara incident reminds us of the need to continue to build positive inter-religious communication. The degree of tolerance we have worked hard to build must not be marred by a small group of people,” Joko said.
Members of Indonesia’s Interfaith Forum (FLI), whose representatives were participating in the NU congress in Jombang, voiced their support for Joko’s appeal.
FLI spokesman Husein Muhammad said the congress, which runs through Wednesday, must underline the blaring issue of growing intolerance in Indonesia.
“[Incidents like Tolikara] must not be repeated,” said Husein, an NU cleric and senior teacher at an Islamic boarding school in West Java. “All of us [FLI members] present here support the suggestion that NU should pay special attention to tackling intolerance in our country.”
Another FLI official, Aan Anshori, added that the Tolikara incident also highlighted local governments’ failure to safeguard religious tolerance in their respective regions.
Meanwhile, Wirya, a representative from Buddhist organization Mahavihara Buddha Trowulan in Mojokokerto, East Java, asked for “concrete recommendations” from the NU congress to address the pressing issue.
Reports of attacks carried out by Buddhist monks on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar have also sparked malicious sentiments against Buddhists in Indonesia among some hard-line Muslim groups.
Saturday evening’s opening ceremony was attended by Indonesia’s fifth president and chairwoman of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Megawati Soekarnoputri; the wife of late Indonesian president and NU leader Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, Shinta Nuriyah Wahid; as well as a number of cabinet ministers, political party leaders and foreign ambassadors.
NU’s 33th congress will see the election of a new chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, with candidates that include incumbent Said Aqil Siradj; Abdurrahman’s brother, Salahuddin “Gus Sholah” Wahid; and Said’s current deputy and former deputy of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), As’ad Said Ali.
Muhammadiyah, which has some 20 million to 25 million followers across the country, is also organizing its annual national congress this week. It is due to take place in Makassar, South Sulawesi, from Monday through Friday.
Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin said that among the issues that would be discussed was the organization’s commitment to Indonesia’s founding ideology of Pancasila, which is often cited as the official basis for pluralism.
“[The congress] also will discuss Muhammadiyah’s critical views on the state of the nation, particularly regarding nationalism, universal humanity and other strategic issues,” said Din, who is also the chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), which consists of senior clerics from Indonesia’s major Muslim groups.
Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912 by Muslim trader and cleric Ahmad Dahlan. NU, meanwhile, was founded in 1926 by late president Gus Dur’s grandfather, Hasyim Asy’arie, to counter the spread of Muhammadiyah.
While NU has been focusing on spreading Islam in Indonesia through its traditional Islamic boarding schools and is mostly concentrated on Java, Muhammadiyah has been spreading Islamic teachings by developing its own regular schools, universities and hospitals.
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