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NU: The ‘transactional’, ‘trans-national’ and ‘progressive’ clerics
Muhammad Nafik, Jakarta
Despite being an organization of Muslim clerics, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) remains unable to uphold moral values and divine principles both internally and for Indonesian Muslims in general.
NU should set an example for the public, and particularly other socio-religious organizations and political parties in Indonesia that must embrace and promote clean governance and fair politics.
The reality is, however, that NU cannot rid itself of moral hazards and murky politics.
Rumors of vote buying and negative campaigning abounded at the organization’s national leadership conference in Makassar, South Sulawesi, last week.
The momentum continued to shift among voters right up until the dying minutes of the chairmanship vote at the five-day conference; a phenomenon critics attributed to a frantic campaign of last-minute under-the-table voter bribing.
The rumors, although widespread, proved hard to verify on the final night of the conference, but have since been confirmed by respected cleric Sahal Mahfudz, who was elected as chief of NU’s edict-making body after beating out rival Hasyim Muzadi.
Although many participants at the conference refused to comment on the presence of vote buying at the event, others admitted they were offered bribes in the form of airline tickets and hotel vouchers in exchange for their votes.
Bribes were not merely offered by insiders, it transpired, but also by powerful outsiders, in particular political party members, who were lobbying for support from the 40-million-strong Muslim organization in the next national and regional elections.
During recent local polls to elect regents, mayors and governors across the country, NU clerics and members’ changing political support stirred internal bickering and sparked segregation within the organization.
During last year’s national elections, several members of NU’s cleric council were seen to dramatically shift allegiance during the campaign period, leading many to believe they were being bribed.
Perceptions of this kind threaten to ruin NU’s image and diminish its credibility and integrity as an independent mass religious organization and a civil society group.
The moderate Muslim organization is also plagued by a stagnant conservatism that threatens reform and modernization, and has lost much of the support it garnered when under the leadership of pluralist figure Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who passed away last December.
Gus Dur turned NU into a globally recognized progressive and moderate organization. Moreover, the NU under Gus Dur commanded respect and influence in national politics.
This once bright image has been dimmed over the last decade by internal politicization and the dominance of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence)-minded clerics and old figures influenced by “transnational” ideals brought from the Middle East.
There are other examples of figures and groups who have been shaped by such transnational currents that claim to return to the roots of the Koran and who embrace hadits (Prophet Muhammad’s traditions) interpretations of Islam. Such examples include extremist or militant groups Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the Islam Defenders Front and the Prosperous Justice Party.
The late Gus Dur gained great respect and recognition from within NU and many non-Muslim organizations as a champion of pluralism. But at the national conference last week, NU appeared to dismiss its previous progressive and liberal takes on sharia issues.
It seems that Gus Dur’s philosophies, which produced an explosion of progressive and liberal young intellectuals, including Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, Moqshit Ghozali and Zuhairi Misrawi, have no place in the current NU, which is under the control of fiqh-minded leaders.
While Gus Dur, for example, vehemently defended and protected the Ahmadiyah sect from frequent attacks and bullying by extremist groups, recently NU ridiculously joined the chorus condemning the minority sect as heretical for its belief that there was a prophet after Muhammad.
“What Gus Dur did was down to his personal views. NU as an institution has its own way of Islamic thinking. It should be separate, although Gus Dur was a great figure for NU,” said a senior cleric who led a discussion on contemporary religious issues during the NU conference.
Despite several discussions on contemporary religious issues during the conference, the respective juries drew largely on the puritan fiqh and salafi perspectives when constructing their theological arguments.
For example, the jurists ruled in favor of underage marriage, basing their argument on the fact that the Koran and hadits had never set a marriage age limit for Muslims.
During Gus Dur’s leadership, similar NU discussion circles typically produced progressive edicts on contemporary religious concerns.
“At the time, it was Masdar *Farid Mas’udi* who was behind these halaqoh discussions, and he greatly contributed to NU’s progressive mindset,” said contemporary Muslim societies analyst Martin van Bruinessen of the Netherlands.
To return to its once dynamic and modern thinking, young intellectuals who were inspired by Gus Dur and who studied not only kitab kuning (traditional textbooks) but also modern philosophy and social influences should be given a larger space in the new leadership of the NU.
The author, a staff writer at The Jakata Post, covered NU’s recent leadership conference.