Indonesia is a democracy with 270 million inhabitants spread over a vast archipelago. It also has a history of periodic, violent conflict rooted in ethnic, religious and/or ideological differences. Eighty-eight percent of Indonesia’s population is Muslim, and over 90 million of these Muslims self-identify with Nahdlatul Ulama. As Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, which helped establish and for over 75 years has defended the Republic of Indonesia as a Pancasila (“multi-religious and pluralistic”) nation state, Nahdlatul Ulama is responsible for helping to preserve social harmony and to address any threat to the nation, whether foreign or domestic.
In his introduction to the enormously influential book, The Illusion of an Islamic State (Ilusi Negara Islam, 2009), former Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman and Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid described the danger posed by an alliance between Muslim extremists and opportunistic politicians “driving our nation towards a deep chasm, which threatens destruction and national disintegration. They care nothing about, and indeed, are actively engaged in sacrificing the future of our multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation. It appears that they place importance only upon their private political ambitions, in order to acquire wealth and power.”
It is in light of these dangers — i.e., the perennial threat posed by an alliance between Muslim extremists and self-aggrandizing politicians — that the Nahdlatul Ulama Circular Letter published on September 20, 2021, should be understood.
As the intense polarization currently roiling much of the West demonstrates, the weaponization of identity can swiftly undermine even well-established democracies, to say nothing of those societies, such as Indonesia’s, that have recently undergone a transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
In this perilous environment, the behavior of even well-intentioned actors who lack the requisite knowledge of Islam, and sufficient experience, may easily produce unintended and devastating consequences.
Hence, the Nahdlatul Ulama Circular Letter may be viewed as a timely reminder to anyone who wishes to promote equal rights for religious minorities in the Muslim world: it is essential to conduct such efforts in a manner that strengthens, rather than undermines, the fabric of social harmony and political stability that are essential to a nation’s well-being and ensuring the rule of law.