By James M. Dorsey
President Joko Widodo’s recent cabinet reshuffle suggests that Indonesia may adopt a more critical attitude towards China and reinforce government support for efforts by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim movement, to reform Islam and position the Southeast Asian state as a key player in a battle with Middle Eastern rivals for the soul of Islam.
Mr. Widodo signaled his potential policy moves with the appointment of ambassador to the United States Muhammad Lutfi as trade minister and prominent Nahdlatul Ulama official Yaqut Cholil Qoumas as minister of religious affairs.
Mr. Lutfi’s appointment came two months after a visit by Mike Pompeo to Jakarta in October at the invitation of Nahdlatul Ulama during which the Secretary of State extended Indonesia’s access to a preferential tariff arrangement and opened the door to a free trade agreement with the United States.
Mr. Pompeo emphasized in talks with Mr. Widodo and in an address to a Nahdlatul Ulama conference the need to challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the People’s Republic’s north-western province of Xinjiang.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy, extradited to China three Uighurs, the dominant Turkic ethnic group in Xinjiang, just days before Mr. Pompeo’s arrival.
Mr. Qoumas’ appointment is significant not only because of his prominent Nahdlatul Ulama background but also given the fact that he is one of the leaders of the movement’s most influential wing that has adopted a tough position on China’s repression of the Uighurs.
Indonesia has to date sought to walk a fine line in escalating tensions between the United States and China, including its refusal to speak out on the plight of the Uighurs. Indonesia has further sought to balance rejection of Chinese maritime claims in Indonesian waters with a desire to attract Chinese investment.
An Islamic scholar and leader of Nahdlatul Ulama’s GP Ansor Youth Movement, Mr. Qoumas, alongside his brother, Yahya Cholil Staquf, NU’s secretary general, has been a driving force in the promotion of the movement’s concept of Humanitarian Islam, based on principles of tolerance, pluralism and the embrace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s government-backed promotion of the concept has put it in direct competition with major efforts by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran to garner religious soft power by propagating a statist interpretation of the faith.
It is an interpretation that in the case of the kingdom and the UAE professes adherence to tolerance and inter-faith dialogue but demands absolute obedience to the ruler. Turkey and Iran push interpretations of the faith that embrace elements of political Islam as well as authoritarian governance.
In one of his early statements as minister, Mr. Qoumas appeared to be challenging more traditional wings of Nahdlatul Ulama by declaring in remarks during a visit to a Protestant church that he would protect the rights of Shiites and Ahmadis, two minorities that have been on the defensive amid concerns of mounting intolerance in Indonesia.
Senior figures within Nahdlatul Ulama continue to view Shi'ites, who constitute a mere 1.2 per cent of the Indonesian population, as one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security and an Iranian fifth wheel. Similarly, many in Nahdlatul Ulama reject Ahmadis identifying themselves as Muslims because the sect refuses to acknowledge the finality of the Prophet Mohammed.
"I don't want members of Shia and Ahmadiyya displaced from their homes because of their beliefs. They are citizens (whose rights) must be protected. The Religious Ministry will facilitate a more intensive dialogue to bridge differences,” Mr. Qoumas said, referring to attacks on minorities.
Mr. Qoumas’ Nahdlatul Ulama youth wing, together with its five-million strong militia, has played a key role in confronting militant Islamic groups, like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front (FDI).
GP Ansor officials take pride in have engineered situations that in 2017 led to the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a controversial global movement that calls for the restoration of the Caliphate.
The government last month banned FDI, established as a vigilante group that was a major organizer of mass protests in 2016 that led to the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent better known as Ahok, in mayoral elections in Jakarta and his subsequent sentencing on blasphemy charges.
The ban came weeks after the return to Indonesia from self-exile in Saudi Arabia of FDI leader Rizieq Shahib. Mr. Shahib was arrested for allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions.
The outlawing of Hizb ut-Tahrir and FDI on the basis of a presidential decree that enables the government to bypass legal procedures and fast-track the banning of groups it considers security threats prompted human rights groups to warn that Indonesia was undermining rights of freedom of association and expression.
Deputy justice minister, Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, told reporters that FPI was outlawed because some 30 members of the group had been convicted on terrorism charges and because the group defied Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, which stresses unity and diversity.
The banning of FDI followed the election in November of Miftachul Akhyar, a Nahdlatul Ulama cleric, as head of the influential Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) to replace Ma’ruf Amin, Mr. Widodo’s vice-president who in the past took a hardline against minorities and advocated Orthodox Sunni Muslim positions. Mr. Akhyar is Nahdlatul Ulama’s spiritual guide.
The election further removed from the council’s leadership several clerics who had backed the anti-Ahok demonstrations. They were replaced by at least one supporter of Humanitarian Islam, Masdar Masudi, as well as scholars from Muhamadiyya, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim movement, viewed as progressives.
Nonetheless, some analysts suggest that the council, in apparent contradiction to Mr. Qoumas, will not break its discriminatory attitude towards minorities.
Said Alexander R Arifianto, an Indonesia scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: “When it comes to marginalized minorities, we can expect the new MUI leadership to retain their conservative standing. Mainstream Islamic clerics — including those within MUI — tend to share a conservative orthodoxy in their religious interpretation toward these groups.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.