Nahdlatul Ulama Poised for Global Leadership: Strategic Review

Indonesia’s Top Foreign Affairs Journal Spotlights Humanitarian Islam
“A movement is underway to change the face of Islam, whose base is shifting from the Middle East to Asia”

JAKARTA, Indonesia / July 2020: The largest Muslim organization on earth is spearheading a mass, grassroots, multi-faith campaign to revitalize the post-WWII rules-based international order and forge a positive role for Islam upon the world stage, where a harsh, repressive and all-too-often violent understanding of the faith has been promulgated by Middle Eastern autocrats for decades.

Acknowledging this momentous shift, Strategic Review: The Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs published on July 2nd two lead stories about the Humanitarian Islam movement. The movement seeks to “recontextualize (i.e., reform) obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy” and “foster shared civilizational values to revitalize a rules-based international order.”

In a lead essay titled “The future of civilization: Indonesia’s contribution,” the Chairman of Indonesia’s largest Islamic political party, PKB, who also serves as Deputy Speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives—H. Muhaimin Iskandar—proposes that the world community adopt “a set of universal principles” identified by Indonesia’s founding fathers, which “can illuminate the path out of darkness and avert the cataclysm that would inevitably accompany a global clash of civilizations.”

Mr. Iskander’s essay is adapted from a January 2020 keynote speech he delivered to a gathering of international dignitaries in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in conjunction with a meeting of the world’s largest political network, Centrist Democrat International (CDI), and the CDI Eurasia Forum. Participants included Indonesia’s Vice President, the Prime Minister of Hungary, the President of CDI, the Secretary General of CDI and of the European People’s Party, the National General Secretary of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and key foreign policy advisors to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

H. Muhaimin Iskandar (second from left) with Indonesian Vice President KH. Ma‘ruf Amin, strolling to the venue where Mr. Iskandar delivered his keynote speech, The Future of Civilization: Indonesia’s Contribution

The second lead essay features a detailed analysis of the global Humanitarian Islam movement, co-authored by Dr. Timothy S. Shah and Thomas Dinham. Shah—who previously served as a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Georgetown University—is Vice President for Strategy and International Research at the DC-based Religious Freedom Institute, and is also Director of RFI’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team. Mr. Dinham heads the Bayt ar-Rahmah Center for Humanitarian Islam in the UK and serves as an advisor to Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, the Nahdlatul Ulama young adults movement.

In his essay, Mr. Iskandar advocates the adoption of four principles that are key to international peace and security:

First, to treat others justly and as equals—without regard to ethnicity or religion; without enmity or hatred; and without seeking to marginalize or eliminate others.

Second, to accept and respect the sovereign nation state as a political system that binds the people of each and every nation, without propagating or pursuing a supremacist agenda vis-à-vis other nations.

Third, to accept and respect a nation’s laws as binding upon all its inhabitants, which provides no space for anyone to cite religion as justification for inciting violence and/or participating in armed rebellion against the duly constituted authority of the nation state. As the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars decreed, in a ruling that also abolished the legal category of infidel (kafir) within the modern nation state: “If it is concluded that any element of positive (i.e., statutory and/or regulatory) law contravenes the highest principles and purposes of religion, this should be—and may only be—corrected by constitutional means. The existence of such laws and regulations may not be employed as a justification for defying a legitimate government.”

Fourth, to preserve and strengthen a rules-based international order founded upon justice, freedom and enduring peace.

If the governments, religions and people of the world are prepared to accept these four principles as the common ground for our life together, then we will be able to find a peaceful solution to whatever differences we may have, without violence or destruction.

What we need now is a genuine, sincere and concrete effort to offer these principles to the world, and invite people of every faith and nation to accept these principles as the cornerstone of a truly global civilization that fosters cooperation, mutual respect and the blossoming of human creativity throughout the world.

Allow me to take this opportunity to say that the National Awakening Party is determined to ensure that Indonesia plays its full part in this effort, and that PKB will carry the banner of Indonesia’s contribution, for the future of humanity and global civilization.

In their essay, “Humanitarian Islam: Fostering shared civilizational values to revitalize a rules-based international order,” Dr. Shah and Mr. Dinham observe that:

The post-World War II rules-based international order is under severe stress, challenged by the emergence of ‘authoritarian, civilizationist states that do not accept this order, whether in terms of human rights, rule of law, democracy or respect for international borders and the sovereignty of other nations.’ What also distinguishes “civilizationist” states—including Communist China and Putin’s Russia—is the weaponization of ethnic, religious and/or cultural identities, including their history and symbols, in order to consolidate and wield power vis-à-vis both internal and external enemies.

“Civilizationism” is part of a global resurgence of identity-based, supremacist politics unfolding in tandem with profound shifts in economic and geopolitical power in the 21st century. Simultaneously, socio-cultural and political developments in recent decades have precipitated a crisis of confidence in Europe and North America regarding the traditional values and legitimacy of Western civilization. These developments have profoundly undermined the philosophical, spiritual and moral foundation upon which the post-war international order was built. . . .

Humanity thus stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, cumulative and rapidly accelerating scientific, technological and economic progress have created an historically unparalleled opportunity for the collective flourishing of humanity, particularly when accompanied by a rules-based international order that safeguards national sovereignty and policies founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being. On the other hand, civilizationist leaders—who instrumentalize and mobilize tribal identity, political and economic power, and technology to tyrannize others—pose an immense threat to the future of humanity.

Humanitarian Islam is a response to this multi-pronged global threat. Spiritual leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which has over 90 million followers in Indonesia, believe that the Humanitarian Islam movement can help safeguard human dignity and build independent pillars of social-cultural, religious and political support for the post-WWII rules-based international order. This order—whose philosophical and ethical foundations are grounded in the belief that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”—is being progressively undermined by an abdication of Western moral and political leadership in the face of a global resurgence of identity-based, supremacist politics.

The NU-affiliated National Awakening Party, PKB, is already promoting Humanitarian Islam internationally in partnership with NU spiritual leaders and Centrist Democrat International, which PKB joined in 2018. A coalition of center-right parties from across the globe, CDI includes the largest and most influential political network in the European Union, the European People’s Party (EPP), as well as ruling political parties across Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. CDI has adopted three distinct PKB resolutions that endorse Humanitarian Islam, affirm that “Western humanism, Christian democracy and Humanitarian Islam are kindred traditions,” and call for “a 21st century alliance to promote a rules-based international order founded upon universal ethics and humanitarian values.”

Click here to read both essays from Strategic Review

Cover art: A 2006 painting by Dutch artist John van der Sterren depicts Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, cradling a barefoot independence martyr slain by Dutch colonial forces in late-1940s central Java. A cross dangles from the young man’s neck. Sri Ayati’s Legacy hangs in the Jakarta headquarters of Nahdlatul Ulama’s young adults organization, GP Ansor, and has become a potent symbol of the Humanitarian Islam movement.

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