Maneuver in the narrative space: Lessons from Islam Nusantara
January-March 2018
By: C Holland Taylor

He continued: “Genuine Islam, Islam Nusantara, Indonesian Islam, the Islam taught by the Messenger of God, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, has been supplanted by Saudi Islam … a grasping and materialistic Islam … coarse, cruel and savage. I am absolutely certain that our understanding of Islam is shared by the majority of Muslims worldwide, and that (the Wahhabi/ISIS) view is just a ghoulish nightmare that keeps the world awake at night, trembling in horror.”

Indonesia’s founding fathers were steeped in the history of Islam Nusantara and recognized the threat posed by religious supremacism, which influenced their decision to establish Indonesia as a multireligious and pluralistic state. Their wisdom and ability to maneuver in the narrative space also inspired Indonesia’s founding president, Soekarno, and members of his cabinet to adopt Vishnu’s mount, the eagle Garuda, tightly gripping a banner emblazoned with the phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Oneness Amid Diversity) between its extended claws as the symbol of their new nation. When confronted by the Darul Islam rebellion (1949-62), which sought to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state, Soekarno, leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama and other Indonesian nationalists drew upon the legacy of Islam Nusantara to delegitimize and crush the armed rebellion, whose adherents routinely beheaded their opponents, much like ISIS today.

In the 1950s, when Islamists sought to implement fiqh (classical Islamic law) and transform Indonesia into an Islamic state through political means, Kyai Wahab Chasbullah, co-founder of Nahdlatul Ulama and chairman of its Supreme Council, withdrew NU from the Islamist-dominated political party Masyumi, aligned NU with Soekarno and orchestrated the defeat of Masyumi’s agenda at the polls. The relative success of Indonesia’s democracy after the fall of Soekarno’s successor, Soeharto, in contrast to the stark failure of the Arab Spring and the sociopolitical train wreck unfolding throughout the Middle East, may be attributed to Indonesian Muslims’ heritage and their ability to maneuver in the narrative space. Yet Indonesia is not immune to the threat posed by religious extremism, which Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Pakistan and other state and nonstate actors have deliberately nurtured and exported worldwide for decades, in their struggle to maintain or acquire political, economic and military power.

The dramatic events on display before, during and after the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election illustrate the manner in which rival narratives, within Islamic orthodoxy, continue to shape the political landscape within the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and democracy. As reported in The Diplomat, “Mainstream political elites [used] religious and ethnic appeals to delegitimize a candidate … to crush an opponent,” referring to the Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama.

As NU general secretary Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf observed at the time, the manner in which obsolete elements of Islamic orthodoxy were mobilized to defeat Ahok have “legitimized [Dutch politician] Geert Wilders’ effort, in the Netherlands, to revoke Islam’s protected status as a religion and instead declare Islam to be a subversive political ideology. Hopefully we will not witness Muslim minorities around the world experience restrictions upon their religious freedom, their right to enter other countries or even forcible expulsion” as a result of actions by those who seek to weaponize Islam for political purposes.

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