Trading blows: NU versus PKS

« Trading blows: NU versus PKS » by Greg Fealy, 10/07/2018, Indonesia at Melbourne

How did a visit to Israel by a senior Islamic figure lead to members of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), accusing the nation’s second largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), of behaving like communists who are out to destroy Indonesia? This is a tale about the fevered state of Islamic discourse in Indonesia, one nurtured in the hothouse of social media. It has been fuelled by long-standing and deepening doctrinal animosities as well as competing political interests. Its resonance will be felt in next year’s legislative and presidential elections.

The saga began in early June, when Yahya Cholil Staquf, the secretary of NU’s Religious Council (PB Syuriah) and a member of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Advisory Council (Wantimpres) visited Israel. He travelled at the invitation of the advocacy group the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and gave a series of public lectures as well as met political and religious leaders and academics.

Yahya claimed he went to Israel out of concern for the Palestinians and a desire to foster peace in the Middle East. He also invoked the name of Abdurrahman Wahid (“Gus Dur”), Indonesia’s fourth president and former NU chair, who visited Israel on numerous occasions and served on the advisory board of the Peres Centre for Peace. Yahya ignored advice from many of his NU colleagues not to go and travelled without the approval of the NU Central Board.

News of the visit broke in the Islamic media on 9 June, sparking immediate controversy. When, a few days later, the Israeli press carried pictures of Yahya shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Islamist groups reacted angrily, calling on NU and President Widodo to censure or dismiss him for undercutting Indonesia’s long-standing pro-Palestinian policy and for playing into the hands of an Israeli government that had only recently shot dead more than 50 Palestinians on the Gaza border. Criticism of Yahya sharpened when it was reported that he failed to meet any Palestinian leaders and had been “severely censured” by Hamas in a press statement on 11 June.

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