Ansor Congress and Film Launch. On the morning of November 26, 2015, the 15th National Congress of the world’s largest Muslim youth organization, GP Ansor (established 1934), opened with the screening of a film (The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam) that the New York Times hailed as “a relentless religious repudiation of the Islamic State and the opening salvo in a global campaign by the world’s largest Muslim group to challenge the ideology of the Islamic State head-on.”

Muslims praying during Ramadan at a mosque in Jakarta in Indonesia. The country has the world’s largest Muslim population. Nyimas Laula/Reuters

The leadership of Ansor is closely aligned with the spiritual wing of its parent organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (est. 1926). Haji Yaqut Cholil Qoumas — a member of Indonesia’s parliament and nephew of Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, former chairman of the NU Supreme Council — was elected Chairman of GP Ansor for the 2015 – 2020 term. Under his leadership, Ansor is expected to work closely with the Nahdlatul Ulama and Bayt ar-Rahmah in addressing the threat posed by Islamist extremism.

Gerakan Pemuda Ansor’s View Regarding the Republic of Indonesia’s Strategic Interests and National Security Agenda. On April 17 – 18 2017, representatives of the world’s largest Muslim young adults movement, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor (est. 1934), gathered for the organization’s XXIst National Conference. Regional and provincial leaders discussed a number of geopolitical developments that pose a grave threat to Indonesia’s security. These include “the brutal conflicts raging in the Middle East and other hot spots; the rampant social turbulence that prevails almost everywhere in the Muslim world; the spread of religious extremism and terrorism, which pose a global security threat; and a rising tide of Islamophobia among non-Muslim populations, in response to these developments in the Muslim world.” Conference delegates also discussed “the threat posed by the political and military agenda of the People’s Republic of China, as it seeks to achieve regional hegemony in East and Southeast Asia.”

NU General Secretary to the European Union and Its 28 Member States: “You cannot win if you do not fight back.” Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staqufn —  General Secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Supreme Council — delivered a video address to senior EU officials and representatives of 28 Member States at the headquarters of the European Council, which defines the EU’s overall political direction and policies. His address was part of a broader expert presentation on risk assessment hosted by the government of Estonia, which currently holds the rotating Presidency of the EU Council. Member States holding the rotating Presidency work together in groups of three to set long-term goals and prepare a common agenda determining the topics and major issues that will be addressed by the Council over an 18-month period. The presentation was delivered to the Terrorism Working Party (TWP), which leads and manages the Council’s agenda on counter-terrorism. Attended by law-enforcement and security officials of the 28 EU Member States, TWP is also responsible for exchanging information and assessments of terrorist threats; countering radicalization and recruitment of potential terrorists; and carrying out peer evaluations of Member States’ best practices in the fight against terrorism.

Conference room at EU headquarters in Brussels, where Mr. Staquf’s address was delivered

The address came at a time of rising controversy and political discord between EU Member States regarding the volatile issues of mass migration, the distribution of refugees and counter-terrorism policy. The NU aims to reduce polarization between Muslim communities and the West, and help generate the societal consensus required to address the threat posed by Islamist extremism and terror. If heeded, NU/Bayt ar-Rahmah recommendations could help reconcile severe policy differences — regarding Islam and Muslims — that have strained relations between Western European nations led by Germany and the V4 (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Inclusion of the NU General Secretary’s address within the TWP agenda may thus be interpreted as a move by the EU rotating Presidency to bridge policy differences and establish a common platform capable of addressing issues that threaten not only international peace and security, but EU solidarity as well.

Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf

NU General Secretary to Europe’s Intellectual and Political Elites: “The West must stop equating a rational critique of Islamist terrorism with Islamophobia.” In the wake of yet another devastating terror attack in Europe — which killed or injured over 140 on the streets of Barcelona — Germany’s leading newspaper published a lengthy interview with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) General Secretary Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf. Headlined “Terrorism and Islam are Intimately Connected,” the interview was placed on the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s widely-read Feuilleton (arts and culture) section, which also addresses moral issues that transcend partisan politics. Within hours of its publication, the interview was trending as one of the most popular articles shared in Germany.

Promoted as a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) exclusive, the newspaper’s internet home page linked to a description of the interview which reads:

“‘There is a crystal clear relationship between fundamentalism, terror and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy,’ says Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia. . . This is particularly true in regard to the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. The position of Muslims vis-à-vis the State and its legal system are also problematic and lead to segregation and enmity. ‘Too many Muslims view civilization, and the peaceful co-existence of people of different faiths, as something they must combat’ says Yahya Cholil Staquf. As a result, the West’s growing fear of Islam is completely understandable. And it is essential that people speak clearly about the connection between Islam and terrorism: ‘The West must stop equating the rational discussion of these issues with Islamophobia.’”

Harry Athwal, 44, stays with an injured boy after the Barcelona attack

Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary’s “Message to Europe” helped shape public discourse amid the heat of Germany’s 2017 national election campaign. In June of 2017, several organizations affiliated with the spiritual wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama — including Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, Bayt ar-Rahmah and LibForAll Foundation — launched a strategic messaging campaign and began implementation of the road map. On August 19 one of Germany’s leading newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), published a hard-hitting interview with NU General Secretary Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, which promptly went viral amidst an historic election campaign in Germany. Mr. Staquf’s message was quickly translated and conveyed via print and internet/social media throughout the EU, eliciting a strong, favorable response across the political spectrum and the continent, in regions as diverse as Spain, Belgium, Poland, Denmark and Finland.

The timing and extent of media coverage within Germany — combined with a nuanced analysis of that nation’s September 24, 2017 election results — suggest that Mr. Staquf’s FAZ interview legitimized public discourse regarding the relationship between terrorism and Islam, and thereby accelerated European voters’ abandonment of political parties that refuse to acknowledge any causal relationship between Islamist terrorism and certain problematic elements of orthodox Islamic teachings and practice. This result is in keeping with GP Ansor and Bayt ar-Rahmah’s strategy to develop a peaceful, common platform and alternative bloc in support of the principles, strategy and objectives articulated in the Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam, including the need to identify and contain the threat posed by Islamist extremism.

Scholar Cites NU General Secretary’s Role in Stripping Saudi Control of Brussels Terror Mosque, after three years in which Belgians played a prominent role in Islamic State attacks in the Belgian capital as well as Paris. “I view this as a positive sign,” said KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf when asked about the controversy raging over control of Brussels’ Grand Mosque. “Both the Saudis and Europeans are having to confront the real world consequences of their respective policies related to Islam. Rather than deny that there’s any causal relationship between terrorism and certain problematic tenets within orthodox Islam — such as enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims, which the Saudi religious establishment has deliberately fostered for decades — both sides need to acknowledge this problem and address it.”

Nahdlatul Ulama targets the weaponization of religion for political purposes. From 23 – 25 November 2017, the world’s largest Muslim organization convened 1,200 religious scholars for a National Assembly of Ulama and Major Conference, whose primary agenda was to strengthen the values of nationalism, counter religious extremism and improve the economic welfare of all sectors of Indonesian society. Attendees included Indonesia’s President and Vice President; the chiefs of Indonesia’s military, national police and state intelligence agency; numerous cabinet ministers; and foreign emissaries, including ambassadors from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In his opening address, NU General Chairman Kyai Haji Said Aqil Siradj said that “Indonesia is different from the Middle East, where people who are religious are generally not nationalists, and those who are nationalists are generally not religious…. We are fortunate that our situation is so different from that in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and so many other nations, whose people are overwhelmingly Muslim and yet trapped in horrendous civil wars with no end in sight… To preserve the unity of the Republic of Indonesia and the tranquility of its people, radical groups and their ideology must be expelled [from the public space]!”

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kansas and MAGELANG, Indonesia: On January 1, 2018, Strategic Review — “The Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs” — published a two-part cover story titled “Maneuvering within Islam’s Narrative Space.” The authors are LTC Brian Steed, Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and C. Holland Taylor, Chairman & CEO of LibForAll Foundation, which he established in 2003 with former Indonesian President H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid. Mr. Taylor also represents the world’s largest Muslim youth organization, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, and works closely with senior figures within the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) — including its spiritual leader and former Chairman, Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, and KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf, the current General Secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council — to expand NU and Ansor operations worldwide.

Colonel Steed and Mr. Taylor met at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in May of 2017, when both were invited to address the Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC) Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), an annual event that gathers CT professionals from dozens of nations to share best practices in countering violent extremism. They subsequently decided to collaborate on the cover story published in the January – March 2018 issue of Strategic Review.

Colonel Steed’s pioneering work establishes a unique conceptual framework for understanding the “narrative space,” in which Islamist movements including ISIS and al-Qaeda have decisively out-maneuvered their Western opponents. Terrorist organizations accomplish this by weaponizing religious, socio-cultural and historical narratives to mobilize support and wage asymmetric warfare, both online and upon the physical battlefield, which now includes public streets, restaurants, office buildings, stores, churches, synagogues, museums and concert halls in cities throughout Europe and North America.

The Enduring Threat of Islamist Politics in ‘Reformasi’ (Post-Soeharto) Indonesia and its Global Ramifications

On May 22nd, 2018, Indonesia’s leading English-language daily, The Jakarta Post, published a collection of articles that analyzed the progress and prospects for reform in the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy, twenty years after the fall of Soeharto. Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council, contributed an 1,800-word essay in which he examined the perennial Islamist threat to Indonesia and its roots within Islamic orthodoxy.

As Mr. Staquf writes: “[O]ne thing cannot be denied: the aspiration for Islam to attain political domination is, indeed, an intrinsic part of orthodox Islamic teachings, if we employ the term ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ to describe ‘an array of theological doctrines accepted, by the majority of Muslims, as the most authoritative religious reference standard.’ And how could this not be the case? Islamic orthodoxy includes a remarkably extensive discourse about public law, both civil and criminal, which is generally described as ‘God’s law’ (sharia) — or at least, as ‘the interpretation of God’s law’ — which must be operationalized in daily life. Obviously, this cannot be achieved without political domination by those who wish to implement sharia, which precisely describes the Islamist agenda. . . .

“So long as obsolete, medieval tenets within Islamic orthodoxy remain the dominant source of religious authority throughout the Muslim world, Indonesian Islamists will continue to draw power and sustenance from developments in the world at large…. Preservation of Indonesia’s unique civilizational heritage — which gave birth to the Republic of Indonesia as a multi-religious and pluralistic nation-state — requires the successful implementation of a global strategy to develop a new Islamic orthodoxy, which reflects the actual circumstances of the modern world in which Muslims must live and practice their faith.”

White House Declares Support for @NahdlatulUlama. In May of 2018, the Vice President of the United States invited NU General Secretary KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf to the White House, where they discussed the pressing need for religious freedom and for decisive action to bring this about. Within minutes of their meeting, the Vice President tweeted: “@POTUS Trump Administration stands with NU in its fight for religious freedom and against jihad.” News of the meeting quickly spread to major media outlets in the U.S. and Indonesia. Christianity Today reported, “US supports major Sunni group’s effort to fight radicalization… [The NU] has been championed as a model of ‘moderate Islam’” and quoted Pence saying, “As the largest Muslim majority nation, Indonesia’s tradition of modern Islam, frankly, is the inspiration to the world.”

In May of 2018 President Joko Widodo appointed NU General Secretary K.H. Yahya Cholil Staquf to the 9-member Dewan Pertimbangan Presiden (Presidential Advisory Council), a constitutionally-authorized body whose members may attend cabinet meetings and are accorded a rank equivalent to Minister of State. Mr. Staquf advises President Jokowi and the Indonesian government at large on religious, domestic and international affairs.