Nahdlatul Ulama and the politics trap

« Nahdlatul Ulama and the politics trap » by Greg Fealy, 11 July 2018, New Mandala

At first glance, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has never been in a stronger position. It has a record number of members in cabinet. It enjoys close relations with the president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has privileged access to the corridors of power and is the beneficiary of increasingly generous largesse from the state, all of which are boosting the range of services and opportunities that it can provide to its vast membership. NU’s president, Ma’ruf Amin, is also the chairman of the influential Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and numerous other senior nahdliyyin (NU members) hold strategic positions in the bureaucracy, state-owned enterprises and the corporate sector. NU’s campaign to promote its “moderate”, culturally embedded Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam) concept has won government endorsement and attracted international attention. In short, NU’s status as the pre-eminent Islamic organisation in Indonesia has never seemed more secure.

A closer look, however, suggests that the organisation’s position is more vulnerable and its future more uncertain than its current exuberant confidence might indicate. Indeed, NU is to an extent emblematic of some of the challenges facing Indonesia’s civil society more broadly. Among these are the increasing influence of conservative views at the grassroots, the hazards of engagement with party politics, and the increasingly blurred boundary between the state and civil society as the latter seeks to capture state resources, and governments seek to co-opt civic organisations such as NU to service their goals.

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