Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization neutrality in question after top officials’ reported campaign for Prabowo

A former Nahdiatul Ulama branch head has recently expressed his disappointment in the podcast over how NU had moved away from its traditional neutral stance in politics.

Yerica Lai

Yerica Lai

The Jakarta Post


January 29, 2024

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama’s (NU) neutrality pledge for the upcoming presidential election has come under scrutiny following reports of its leadership mobilizing support for candidate pair Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka.

In an episode of political podcast GASPOL broadcast recently, prominent cleric and Muslim scholar Nadirsyah Hosen, popularly known as Gus Nadir, unveiled an effort from top NU officials to influence the organization’s members and followers to help Prabowo and Gibran, the eldest son of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, secure an outright victory in a single round election.

Recent opinion polls show that frontrunners Prabowo and Gibran will only be able to garner 46 percent of the votes on Feb. 14, less than the 50 percent required to win the presidential election in a single round without a runoff in June.

Gus Nadir, a former head of NU’s religious council in Australia and New Zealand branch, claimed that the organization’s executive board gathered leaders of NU regional branches across the country for an informal meeting at a hotel in Surabaya, East Java on Jan. 7. During the meeting, chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf gave dawuh, or unwritten instruction, to support the Prabowo-Gibran presidential ticket.

The Rais ‘Aam (supreme leader of NU) Miftachul Achyar, who was present during the meeting, reportedly told members to sam’an wa thoo’atan, or to listen to and obey the instructions, aware of how such a request from someone in such a respected position might stir controversy.

Gus Nadir expressed his disappointment in the podcast over how NU had moved away from its traditional neutral stance in politics.

“The fact that NU has been presenting two layers of reality will confuse people, especially NU followers. Many will find it hard to believe in NU in the future, and this is dangerous,” said Nadir, who is also a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Yahya dismissed Nadir’s claims, calling them baseless assumptions. “Anyone can make assumptions about anything nowadays,” the NU chairman said.

Founded in 1926 by cleric Hasyim Asy’ari, NU has become a powerful political force with its estimated 45 million members. The organization and its members have played a critical role in shaping the outcome of presidential elections in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Under Yahya’s leadership, the organization vowed to stay neutral in the 2024 election and distanced itself from politics, prohibiting its leadership board members from running for elected office, including for president and vice president. He also told NU top officials to refrain from joining any presidential campaign team.

In 2021, Yahya ran a successful campaign for NU chairmanship against his predecessor Said Aqil Siradj by promising to make NU a politically neutral organization once again. At that time, there were growing concerns that the organization and some of its senior figures had become too closely aligned with political parties and Jokowi’s regime.

Throughout Jokowi’s presidency, NU has enjoyed a close relationship with the President. The organization received numerous grants and saw its senior members appointed as cabinet ministers, ambassadors and board members of various state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Returning the favor

Despite Yahya’s neutral pledge, some signs suggested NU would not distance itself from Jokowi, who is widely perceived to support Prabowo and Gibran.

Yahya reaffirmed the Muslim organization’s support for Jokowi ahead of the 2024 election campaign season, saying that the outgoing leader had long worked closely with NU.

“Insya Allah [God willing], NU will never be too far away from Jokowi as well,” the chairman said during an NU conference in September.

Sukron Kamil, Arabic cultural and political professor at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN), did not find NU leaders’ engagement in the 2024 election surprising considering the close ties between the group and Jokowi, who is widely perceived as seeking to retain power through his son.

“Jokowi may have been the most generous leader [toward NU] as he offered NU a wide range of concessions and financial contributions,” Sukron said, saying that supporting Prabowo and Gibran in the upcoming election could be a way for the organization to return the favor.

Historically, NU has been dependent on state resources and patronage to continue its efforts to promote religious tolerance and pluralism. This contrasts with Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim group, which can organize social services through philanthropic contributions from its members.

Sukron noted that NU was taking a “huge gamble” by siding with Prabowo, as no opinion polls have so far predicted a runaway victory for the candidate pair.

“Should Prabowo and Gibran lose the election, we can expect to see a change in the NU central board, as the current leadership may lose its relevance,” he added. “Taking a neutral stance might have been the safest route.”

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