Muslim Scholar’s Call for “Honest Discussion” Elicits Global Response

Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary’s Appeal to “Renounce the Practice of Weaponizing Islam for Partisan Advantage” Praised for Offering a “Way Forward” in the Aftermath of Christchurch Terror Attacks

On March 25, 2019, Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of the world’s largest Islamic organization—Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), with over 90 million followers—responded to the brutal slaughter of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand. Writing in The Telegraph, a prestigious newspaper with close links to Britain’s governing Conservative Party, Mr. Staquf urged people of all faiths and none to go through the “uncomfortable” process of “resolutely acknowledging the causal factors of the violence that we are seeing in so many parts of the world,” and summon the courage to ask “questions that require difficult but honest answers.” The article, entitled “To prevent another Christchurch, Islam must confront the attacks in its name that have radicalized the West,” was welcomed by policy experts, journalists, opinion leaders and government officials for encouraging discourse about a highly-fraught and complex phenomenon that threatens all humanity.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center—a human rights organization that seeks to prevent hatred, discrimination and genocidal violence—noted in the Times of Israel that, “we won’t defeat burgeoning hate by embracing soothing but dishonest political correctness. . . Muslims, Jews, and Christians should take their cue from Yahya Cholil Staquf.” Rabbi Cooper’s article, co-authored with historian Dr. Harold Brackman, examined how many commentators exploited outrage at the Christchurch massacre, and solidarity with its Muslim victims, to shut down discourse and thereby obstruct an honest public discussion of causal factors, while rabid anti-Semites promoted conspiracy theories, some of which claimed that Mossad or other Jews were responsible for the terrorist atrocity.

Asian Affairs—a monthly magazine that analyzes regional news and politics from a South Asian perspective—published a piece contrasting the “violent language” and threatening behavior of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with Mr. Staquf’s measured response and concern “that the New Zealand attacks will create more hatred and division.” In the article, titled “Tears, Anger and Solidarity,” former BBC journalist and current Asian Affairs Editor Duncan Bartlett observes how President Erdogan “repeatedly described the Christchurch mosque killings as part of a wider conspiracy against Turkey and Islam”; played video footage of the massacre at political rallies; and angrily blamed the West for the killings. “Turkey’s president blames the West but,” Duncan Bartlett explains, “other Muslims are calling for interfaith cohesion. . . Yahya Cholil Staquf insists that solidarity across racial, religious, cultural and political lines is the appropriate way to try to prevent [terrorist attacks]. . . His message to his fellow Muslims is to reject interpretations of the religion which justify hatred and violence.”

Sir John Jenkins—former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, senior fellow at Policy Exchange and co-author of the UK government’s review of the Muslim Brotherhood—wrote a Spectator article titled “The Muslim leader who offers an example on how to tackle Islamism.” Sir Jenkins described Mr. Staquf’s intervention as “remarkable,” arguing “it is time to keep our collective nerve and reject the sort of divisive, reactionary and identity-based language used by Erdogan, the OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] and those who think that a blanket ban on what they reserve the right to define as Islamophobia is the answer. . . Instead, we should reassert the values of liberal democracy, encourage a franker discussion of what the roots are of terrorisms of all types, and find ways to counter murderous ideologies before they lead to bloodshed. That means speaking about the roots of the discontents of some Muslims and some non-Muslims. It also means honestly acknowledging the problems in our own traditions, not seeking to ban or criminalise criticism.”

Support for Mr. Staquf’s invitation to frank discourse was echoed on New Zealand current affairs website Noted, where journalist Graham Adams questioned “[H]ow can we address the accused’s ideology and motivations and engage in an honest discussion without being able to read the manifesto?” In his article, Mr. Staquf wrote that terrorist Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto—which is banned in New Zealand and its possession subject to severe criminal penalties—evidences “a fixation upon nearly 1400 years of armed conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. . . a historical framework he [Tarrant] shares with many Muslims.” Adams concludes, “It’s worth remembering that in discussing the ‘ancient cycle of violence,’ this is not a casual racist or bigot talking. Staquf is an eminent Muslim scholar, who heads an influential organisation founded in 1926 which teaches that the primary message of Islam is universal love and compassion.”

Titling his article “Why banning the accused gunman’s manifesto is a bad idea,” Mr. Adams—former chief subeditor of Metro and North & South magazines—questioned whether it is “a wise move for a bureaucrat to decide the manifesto is of so little value in understanding how to prevent another atrocity that its dissemination is best left to a small, privileged group of New Zealanders who can interpret it on behalf of everyone else?” In the opinion of Mr. Staquf, the banning of Tarrant’s manifesto is symptomatic of a wider failure by Western governments to acknowledge and address the root causes of ethnic and religious supremacism, separatism and violence.

For those familiar with the history of censorship, the action taken by David Shanks—Chief Censor at New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification—offers a chilling reminder of Europe’s past, and premonition of a dystopian future in which bureaucrats, and politicians, decide what a nation’s citizens may and may not read. Criminal sanctions for possession (10 years imprisonment) or distribution (14 years imprisonment) of Tarrant’s virulently racist manifesto—or of similar propaganda generated by ISIS—undermines the ability of free and democratic societies to understand, identify and address the very real threats posed by a wide range of ethnic and religious supremacists.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, public intellectual, journalist and commentator Melanie Phillips called Mr. Staquf “extremely courageous,” lamenting that “many Diaspora Jewish leaders do not stand in solidarity with such bravery. Instead. . . In Britain and elsewhere, Jewish community leaders are not only in the forefront of the attempt to suppress ‘Islamophobia’ as rooted in racism, but they also equate it with antisemitism. This equation is horribly wrong. . . Our culture has indeed developed the characteristics of the former Soviet Union, a disorienting hall of mirrors in which everything seems to be the reverse of reality. Jews were themselves historic victims of that system (although some were also among its perpetrators). It is beyond disturbing to see that, in its modern manifestation, so many Jews have put themselves on the wrong side of the looking glass.” Days later, Ms. Phillips referred to Mr. Staquf as “a stupendously brave Muslim leader” in an article published by the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle.

The spiritual leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama aim to unite the “humanitarian left” and “national security right” in the West to foster the emergence of the societal consensus and political will necessary to support Muslims who wish to address (i.e., reform) those obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that underlie the Islamist worldview, fueling violence between Muslims and non-Muslims. In a radio interview with Mr. Staquf on Australian current affairs program Counterpoint—broadcast by ABC—presenter and former Liberal Party of Australia Senator Amanda Vanstone voiced her support for these efforts. “You rightly say that you’ve got to get on with this desperate struggle and others have to join you to reform these obsolete and problematic tenets,” said Ms. Vanstone. “You rightly conclude that the alternative is to bequeath a tragic legacy of hatred and violence to future generations, and all I can do is congratulate you and hope that others are joining you in Indonesia and in other parts of the world.”

It is perhaps indicative of the current state of affairs in the West that reaction to Mr. Staquf’s article in the Telegraph was markedly different on the political left and right. While many on the center-right applauded Mr. Staquf’s contribution to public debate—and echoed his warning that weaponization of the term Islamophobia short-circuits analysis of the threat posed by Islamist and white supremacist violence alike—there was a notable absence of engagement by left-of-center commentators and politicians. This silence may be attributable to a number of factors: a legitimate desire to prevent the demonization of Muslims living in the West; a reluctance to criticize obsolete and problematic tenets within Islamic orthodoxy; and/or the existence of a de facto political alliance between Muslim supremacists and the far left in much of the West, whereby Islamists and their allies weaponize Islam, and accusations of Islamophobia, to stigmatize opponents and prevent honest discussion of these vital issues.

The text in the above illustration reads: “Because you [Islamist radicals] are just a seedling, with a single taproot hurriedly shoved into the soil [of Indonesia] yesterday afternoon, barely gripping the earth, you’re scared to death of the wind. Thus, you insult and curse even the fresh breeze [of change and modernity]. Our tree [Islam Nusantara, or East Indies Islam] is firmly and deeply rooted in the heart of our Mother Earth [Indonesia], and our branches spread across her lovely face. Thus, we greet the winds [of change] with joy. We scatter pollen upon the breeze to fertilize the pistils of exquisite tropical blossoms, which yield fruits beneficial to all humanity.” ~ KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf

Mr. Staquf, the Nahdlatul Ulama and its 5-million-member young adults movement, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, are on record stating that this failure to honestly acknowledge and address the obvious links between certain obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy, and terrorism, is a major contributing factor to the West’s bewildering paralysis in the face of Islamism—a supremacist ideology that seeks its destruction—and the United States’ exclusive reliance upon violence, including drone warfare and armed interventions throughout the Muslim world, to address the threat of Islamist terror.

Paul Marshall—the Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University—observes, in Religion Unplugged (see article below), that “Pak Yahya’s statements do not come out of the blue. . . Indonesia’s massive moderate organizations, especially NU, have been advocating this reform agenda for several years, and it reflects their views over decades.”

Describing Mr. Staquf as “among the Muslim world’s most incisive and outspoken reformers,” Professor Marshall traces the development of this agenda through a series of international summits and historic declarations, including the ISOMIL Nahdlatul Ulama Declaration (2016); the Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam (2017); and, most recently, the Nusantara Statement and Nusantara Manifesto (2018). “But the Telegraph article does more than repeat the themes of these declarations: it applies them to the aftermath of the New Zealand atrocity,” writes Professor Marshall, who argues that this “remarkable article. . . suggests at least one way forward” in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks.

Muslim Leader Yahya Cholil Staquf: Need To Address ‘Problematic Elements Of Islamic Orthodoxy’ After Christchurch Attack

by Paul Marshall, April 3, 2019

An Indonesian Muslim man prays. Photo used with Creative Commons license.

(COMMENTARY) In the U.S., most reactions to the hideous Mar. 15 massacre of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand have simply been rehashes of pre-existing attitudes and agendas—including fears of right-wing terrorism and the need for gun control. There has been little real learning from this terrible event that could shape what we do in the future. However, on Mar. 24, there was a remarkable article in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that suggests at least one way forward.

Titled “How can we prevent another atrocity like the one in Christchurch?” it stresses the urgent need to address the “problematic elements of Islamic orthodoxy that underlie the Islamist worldview, fuelling violence on both sides” and concludes that “jihadist doctrine, goals and strategy can be traced to specific tenets of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice.”

It stresses that the problematic elements of Islamic orthodoxy include:

“. . .those portions of Shariah that promote Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity towards non-Muslims and require the establishment of a caliphate. It is these elements – still taught by most Sunni and Shiite institutions – that constitute a summons to perpetual conflict.”

At first glance, this might seem to be part of a purported “Islamophobic” critique. But what is perhaps most remarkable is that the author is Yahya Cholil Staquf (also known as Pak Yahya), General Secretary of the world’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), with, depending on how you count, 50-90 million followers.

Yahya is from one of Indonesia’s most distinguished Muslim families and is the head of Gerkan Pemuda Ansor (ANSOR), NU’s young-adult wing, which has some 5 million members. On May 31, 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo appointed him to a member of the Presidential Advisory Council. He is among the Muslim world’s most incisive and outspoken reformers.

Pak Yahya’s statements do not come out of the blue: they build on growing Muslim initiatives in Indonesia and elsewhere. Indonesia’s massive moderate organizations, especially NU, have been advocating this reform agenda for several years, and it reflects their views over decades.

In May 2017, ANSOR convened more than 300 international religious scholars to consider the “obsolete tenets of classical Islamic law” that call for “perpetual conflict with those who do not embrace or submit to Islam.”

This gathering drafted a “Declaration on Humanitarian Islam” that built on earlier statements, including from the May 16, 2016, NU-hosted International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL).

This Declaration on Humanitarian Islam is more self-critical than the much better-known Marrakesh Declaration, arguing, as Pak Yahya does in his Daily Telegraph article, that elements of classical Islam must be questioned. It declares:

“If Muslims do not address the key tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that authorize and explicitly enjoin . . . violence, anyone—at any time—may harness the orthodox teachings of Islam to defy what they claim to be the illegitimate laws and authority of an infidel state and butcher their fellow citizens, regardless of whether they live in the Islamic world or the West.”

At the press conference announcing the Declaration, ANSOR Chairman Yaqut Qoumas stated:

“It is false and counterproductive to claim that the actions of al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other such groups have nothing to do with Islam, or merely represent a perversion of Islamic teachings. They are, in fact, outgrowths of Wahhabism and other fundamentalist streams of Sunni Islam.”

Yahya re-emphasized these themes in a July 18, 2017 address to the Council of the European Union Terrorism Working Party and in subsequent media interviews.

Then, on Oct. 25, 2018, at the “Second Global Unity Forum” in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in which I was a participant, ANSOR released the “Nusantara Manifesto” (or “Yogyakarta Manifesto”).

This manifesto incorporated the previous statements and added to them. (Full disclosure: I was asked to do some editing on it, and the final comprehensive document includes an essay by the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Nahdlatul Ulama and of Indonesia, called “God Needs No Defense,” which was the Forward that Wahid wrote for my and Nina Shea’s book on blasphemy, Silenced).

But the Telegraph article does more than repeat the themes of these declarations: it applies them to the aftermath of the New Zealand atrocity, particularly “How can we – Muslims and non-Muslims together – prevent another atrocity like the one in Christchurch?” It focuses on the “weaponization of ethnic, religious and political identities that is going on throughout the world” and argues that:

Brenton Tarrant’s “actions, which eerily resemble those of Isil and other Islamist terror groups, were calculated to intensify the hostility and suspicion that already exist towards Muslims in the West. They were also designed to elicit a response from Islamists and so encourage a cycle of retaliatory violence.”

In order to resist this, he stresses that we must acknowledge the causal factors of the violence:

This attack on Muslims “comes after nearly two decades during which Islamist atrocities have been a pervasive feature of news bulletins around the world. . . .” He cautions that the weaponizing of the term “Islamophobia” threatens “to short-circuit analysis of a complex phenomenon that threatens all humanity. . . . In reality, it is the spread of Islamist extremism and terror that primarily contributes to the rise of Islamophobia throughout the non-Muslim world.”

Pak Yahya concludes with an appeal “to people on both sides of the political divide in the West, of all faiths and none, to renounce the practice of weaponizing Islam for partisan advantage and join us in the desperate struggle to reform obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy, rather than bequeath a tragic legacy of hatred and violence to future generations.”

Read it.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Washington, DC, and a contributing editor of Providence.

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