R20 participants from India observe a Hindu ritual at Prambanan Temple on the Indonesian island of Java

As G20 Presidency moves to India, the R20 “is part of a larger Muslim struggle that is likely to define Islam in the 21st century.” Geopolitical expert and commentator James M. Dorsey has written an extensive, 1,300-word analysis of the intensifying soft power competition surrounding the G20 Religion Forum, or R20, the results of which will determine whether Muslims “choose between taking the high or the low road to coming to grips with history.

“The high road involves confronting painful truths in a quest for a healthier, more pluralistic, and socially cohesive society. The low road allows autocrats to either rewrite history or sweep it under the table and opportunistically bend it to their will.”

Founded by Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf in 2022 in conjunction with Indonesia’s Presidency of the G20, the next R20 Summit will occur in India in 2023. At stake, observes Dr. Dorsey, is whether the event will retain its original focus “on coming to grips with the problematic histories of various religions, including Islam, to generate genuine religious reform” or follow other interfaith summits and become “geared towards themes likely to curry favour in Western capitals.”

The Times of Israel: “Major Muslim and Hindu organisations are battling to define the role of religion in global politics.” Leading international affairs expert Dr. James M. Dorsey has published an in-depth analysis of the G20 Religion Forum (R20) and its geopolitical ramifications. Writing in The Times of Israel, a multi-language newspaper that documents developments in Israel, the Middle East, and around the Jewish world, Dr. Dorsey argued that the R20 “positioned Nahdlatul Ulama. . . . as a leading force in defining moderate Islam and promoting concepts of genuine religious reform not only of Islam but also of other major faiths such as Hinduism.”

Indonesia’s Religious Soft Power on Display in the Middle East: “Nahdlatul Ulama is arguably the world’s only mass movement propagating a genuinely moderate and pluralistic form of Islam.” The fierce competition for religious soft power between Middle East nations was on stark display with the announcement of diametrically opposed initiatives by major Islamic organizations backed by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Reflecting the growing influence of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesian religious leaders are at the heart of both initiatives.

KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf and Shaykh Mohammad al-Issa during a bi-lateral meeting between the two Muslim leaders in Riyadh

At Saudi Conference, NU Chairman Invites Religious Leaders to Develop a Strategy for Transforming the Mindset of Religious Communities Worldwide. For the first time in its 61-year history, the Saudi-funded Muslim World League has chosen to engage substantively with the world’s largest Muslim organization — Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama — and convey NU’s message of religious pluralism and tolerance to Muslims worldwide.

Long known for spending billions of dollars to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Islam, in recent years the Muslim World League (MWL) has begun to shift its messaging and modes of engagement under the leadership of Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, who was appointed Secretary General of MWL in 2016.

On May 11 – 12, 2022, the Muslim World League convened 90 religious leaders for the Forum on Common Values among Religious Followers. Participants included 47 Muslim scholars, 24 Christian leaders, 12 rabbis and 7 Hindu and Buddhist figures.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s involvement in the Forum on Common Values represents a potential turning point in the Muslim World League’s engagement with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and democracy. For nearly sixty years, the MWL has worked closely with Islamists who sought to transform Indonesia from a multi-religious and pluralistic nation state into a de facto Islamic state.

Nahdlatul Ulama invites Muslim World League Secretary General to co-chair R20 Summit: “Helping to ensure that religion functions as a genuine and dynamic source of solutions, rather than problems.” The official host of this year’s G20 Summit — the Republic of Indonesia, led by popular two-term President Joko Widodo — has decided to place religion and religious leaders near the center of geopolitical discourse for the first time in the history of the G20.

The world’s largest Muslim organization, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, established the G20 Religion Forum (R20) in order to “help ensure that religion in the 21st century functions as a genuine and dynamic source of solutions, rather than problems.”

In order to fulfill this vision, the R20 will mobilize diverse religious, political and economic leaders from G20 Member States and elsewhere throughout the world “to prevent the weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse peoples, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.”

Nahdlatul Ulama (est. 1926) has selected the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL) to jointly host the historic event. The NU decision comes in the wake of recent dramatic changes in policy by Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World League (est. 1962), which for decades propagated ultraconservative Islamic teachings worldwide, prior to the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud as Saudi Crown Prince in 2017.

Autocratic vs. Democratic Islam. Writing in The Times of Israel, geopolitical analyst and scholar Dr. James M. Dorsey has drawn a stark contrast between Nahdlatul Ulama’s democratic vision and the autocratic view of Islam represented by Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, Chairman of the United Arab Emirates Fatwa Council.

Illustrating a deep-rooted phenomenon within the Middle East, which Turkish-American scholar Dr. Ahmet Kuru has termed the “ulama-state alliance,” Shaykh bin Bayyah advocates an autocratic approach to constrain radical discourse within Islamic societies, in order to avoid what he describes as “the chaos of the fatwa.” Nahdlatul Ulama, by contrast, employs grass-roots education and a profoundly spiritual understanding of Islam to counter extremist narratives within a democratic framework.

Saudi Arabia and Indonesia: Clashing Visions of Moderate Islam. Two diametrically opposed visions of moderate Islam have emerged as major Muslim powers battle to define the soul of their faith in the 21st century in a struggle that is as much about geopolitics as it is about autocratic survival and visualizations of a future civilization and world order.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Yahya Cholil Staquf, the newly elected chairman of the central board of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, expressed their dueling visions in separate but almost simultaneously published interviews.

While the timing of the interviews was coincidental, they neatly laid out the parameters of a rivalry among major Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority powers to dominate the discourse of Islam’s place as the world transits into an as yet undefined new world order.

KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf with Prof. Dr. Amarulla Octavian, Rector of Indonesia’s prestigious National Defense University

NU General Secretary Addresses Indonesia’s Defense Establishment: “Indonesia is strategically positioned to foster global stability and help ensure the survival of the post-WWII international order.” Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf addressed the assembled faculty, staff and students at Indonesia’s National Defense University, stating that Indonesia has a strategic role to play in preserving and strengthening the post-WWII international order, as well as shaping its future.

“It is time for us to realize this great potential and act wisely, so that Indonesia’s influence among the community of nations may steadily rise, reflecting its status as the world’s fourth most populous country and sixteenth largest economy. . . As the world moves towards a new equilibrium between major powers, Indonesia has a vital interest in preserving and strengthening our current, rules-based international order. Likewise, the international community has a strategic interest in ensuring that Indonesia remains strong, independent and sovereign,” Mr. Staquf told senior members of Indonesia’s defense establishment.

The Honorable Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs: “To my brothers and sisters in the Baha’i community, wherever you may be, I wish you a joyful celebration of your new year 178 EB [marking the anniversary of your founder’s teaching]”

Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs affirms the constitutional right to freedom of conscience. In July of 2021, Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs responded to harsh Islamist criticism of a video address — in which he warmly conveyed a New Year’s greeting to Indonesia’s miniscule Baha’i minority — by affirming that every Indonesian citizen has a constitutional right to religious freedom, and to practice the teachings of his or her faith.

A government regulation dating from the mid-1960s provides official recognition to only six religious communities in Indonesia: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Confucianism.

Muslim extremists were swift to condemn Minister Qoumas for acknowledging and greeting members of Indonesia’s Baha’i community. Despite the viral nature of the controversy that exploded in print, broadcast and social media, the Minister did not apologize for his action. Demonstrating the strength of his convictions — and widespread popular support for his position — the Honorable Minister of Religious Affairs simply instructed officials within his Ministry to explain the constitutional, legal and regulatory framework that guarantees freedom of conscience to every Indonesian.

2021 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars Press Conference: “[Strengthening] East Indies Islam and NU Autonomy, for the Sake of Global Civilization”

Nahdlatul Ulama moves to prevent foreign and domestic interference in its affairs: “NGOs often weave ‘beautiful narratives’ to impress donors, while in reality undermining progress or even placing others in jeopardy.” The Central Board of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, has instructed all of its chapters, institutions and autonomous bodies to cancel or suspend all activities with an Indonesian NGO and two of its foreign partners, and to submit any proposed future activities for approval by the Central Board. The order is designed to protect and enhance minority rights while preserving social harmony and political stability, rather than seeking to curtail NGOs’ freedom to engage in activities of their choice.

The order was issued in the form of a circular letter distributed to those who govern Nahdlatul Ulama, in response to efforts by the Leimena Institute, a Jakarta-based NGO and its foreign backers — the U.S.-based Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) — to harness Nahdlatul Ulama and Indonesia’s powerful Ministry of Religious Affairs in service of a potentially disruptive agenda dictated by foreign actors, who seek to reshape Indonesia’s complex socio-cultural, religious and political landscape.

For the past century, Nahdlatul Ulama has consistently sought to block the infiltration of Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements into Indonesia’s religious mainstream. The unanimous decision by NU’s Supreme Council and its Executive Board to cancel or suspend any and all cooperation with Leimena, IGE and AJC suggests that NU is also concerned about Western NGOs acting in pursuit of agendas that have the potential to induce social unrest and political instability in Indonesia. View the full report.

A banner depicting and naming participants in the Erbil conference is hung from a checkpoint in Anbar Province, the birthplace of the Iraqi Awakening Movement. The banner declares “Normalization is Treason.”

Peace conference ends in death threats and recrimination, participants claim they were misled. New York Times quotes the son of keynote speaker: “Four times al-Qaeda tried to assassinate us. One day they blew up our house in Baghdad. Now we are wanted by everyone.”

A conference held in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq attracted global media coverage when its keynote speaker issued a demand for Iraq to join the Abraham Accords and recognize the state of Israel. Yet within 24 hours, conference participants were denying any foreknowledge of the event’s controversial agenda as Sunni and Shiite militias launched a manhunt for those involved.

Held two weeks before Iraq’s national elections, the conference appears to have inadvertently played into the hands of Islamist militias and extremist political parties, including that of prominent Shiite cleric Muqtadr al-Sadr, whose party won a plurality of votes in the election. Sadr was swift to condemn the event in Erbil and to declare that it is legitimate to shed the blood of conference participants.

Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, invites Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf to deliver a keynote address at its commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The invitation may signal a major shift in evangelical attitudes towards Islam and Muslims, inspired by Nahdlatul Ulama’s willingness to acknowledge and address certain tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that underlie and animate Islamist extremism worldwide. These tenets are often employed by groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram to condemn those they regard as infidels, thereby legitimizing the widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.

Over the past year, the World Evangelical Alliance, then-U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, and former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback have endorsed Mr. Staquf and the Humanitarian Islam movement he leads.

Nahdlatul Ulama is renowned in Indonesia, and increasingly in evangelical circles worldwide, for defending Christian churches from attack by radical Muslims. Regent University, together with the Christian Broadcasting Network, may be said to represent “the beating heart of evangelical Christianity in the U.S.”

Al-Arab: “The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan spotlights the failed model of government in Muslim states.” In a hard-hitting article published on the eve of the 9/11 attacks’ 20th anniversary, veteran foreign correspondent and Senior Fellow at National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, Dr. James M. Dorsey, argued that Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama constitutes a unique exception to the cycle of authoritarianism, underdevelopment and violence that afflicts so much of the Muslim world.

A wide range of international media outlets swiftly translated and/or republished the article, including prominent Arabic-language newspaper Al-Arab.

Dr. Dorsey’s analysis reflects a growing awareness among Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers across the world of the need for Middle East states to follow Indonesia’s lead in blocking the political weaponization of Islam if they are to transition into modern, developed societies fully integrated with the global economy, much less return to the glory the Muslim world enjoyed during its golden age over one thousand years ago, when Islamic societies were characterized by relative openness, intellectual freedom and prosperity.

In contrast to the heavily politicized legacy of Islam in the Middle East, which continues to inspire many of its government and religious leaders, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama seeks to foster a Humanitarian Islam that is rooted in the principle of universal love and compassion (rahmah).

“A house divided against itself cannot stand” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Fundamental Principles of Nahdlatul Ulama: Historic speech, published in English for the first time, offers a stark reminder to the West. The world’s largest Muslim organization has made a century-old speech by one of its founders, KH. Hasyim Asy’ari, available for the first time in English. The publication of this speech — titled Introduction to the Fundamental Principles of Nahdlatul Ulama — is part of a larger effort by the 90-million-member NU to promote shared civilizational values and discourage the political weaponization of identity.

The speech, which was delivered at the inaugural meeting of Nahdlatul Ulama in 1926, warns that social divisiveness “is the root of destruction and bankruptcy, the source of collapse and ruination, and the agent of humiliation and chaos.” Nearly a century after its delivery, this address, which articulates the ethical and theological framework embraced by the world’s largest Muslim organization, remains the foundational document of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Religious Freedom and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Indonesian and U.S. Statesmen agree that “shared civilizational values” are essential building blocks of a rules-based international order. On July 14, 2021, Hudson Institute Distinguished Fellow Kenneth Weinstein moderated a discussion between Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, and Hudson Distinguished Fellow and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency/U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. It was the first time the Indonesian and U.S. statesmen had met face-to-face since Secretary Pompeo addressed leaders of the Humanitarian Islam movement in Jakarta on October 29, 2020, days before the U.S. presidential election.

Former Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo:
“The places where we can build peace, the places where we can identify overlapping interests will always revolve around shared values.”

Their wide-ranging discussion covered a variety of topics including: Indonesia’s and America’s founding values; mobilizing public support for a sustainable rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific that is resilient and adaptable to the great power realities of the 21st century; the future of the post-World War II human rights project; the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities; threats posed by the political weaponization of identity; genocide; the role of sovereign nation states, and civil society, in preserving and strengthening the rules-based international order; and the need to maintain a stable balance of power within the Indo-Pacific region.

NU General Secretary Yahya Cholil Staquf:
“We need to mobilize civil society actors and mass-based organizations to foster societal consensus regarding fundamental values, if a rules-based international order is to endure.”

How to Make the Islamic World Less Radical

Recontextualize the teachings of Islam to address extremism — and to inspire reform.

by Yahya Cholil Staquf

Why is the modern world plagued by Islamic extremism? Why do al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Islamic State display such savagery? As I told the United Nations General Assembly recently, the doctrine, goals and strategy of these extremists can be traced to specific tenets of Islam as historically practiced. Portions of classical Islamic law mandate Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity toward non-Muslims, and require the establishment of a universal Islamic state, or caliphate. ISIS is not an aberration from history. . . .

Classical Islamic orthodoxy stipulates death as the punishment for apostasy and makes the rights of non-Muslims contingent on a Muslim sovereign’s will, offering few protections to nonbelievers outside this highly discriminatory framework. Millions of devout Muslims, including many in non-Muslim nations, regard the full implementation of these tenets as central to their faith. . . .

The most enduring way to address an extremist religious ideology is to recontextualize its teachings and reform it from within. Four centuries ago, Catholics and Protestants routinely killed each other; now they coexist. I believe the same type of change can occur within Islam in one or two generations. What’s needed is a credible alternative that is consistent with Islamic orthodoxy and developed and promulgated by those with religious and political authority in the Muslim world.

Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest independent Muslim organization, for which I serve as general secretary, is promoting such an alternative. Read the full article (PDF).

Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology: “Nahdlatul Ulama has emerged as a formidable challenger to powerful state actors in the battle for the soul of Islam.” A leading U.S. think tank has published an in-depth analysis of “The Battle for the Soul of Islam,” reporting that Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama has emerged as a formidable contender in the Islamic world’s competition for religious soft power and leadership — capable of operating on the same level as states such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey and Iran.

The 18-page article by Dr. James M. Dorsey — a Middle East expert who is a senior fellow at prominent universities in Singapore, Germany and Israel — appeared in the journal Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, which is published by Hudson Institute’s Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World.

Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary helps shape British grand strategy for the emerging “Eurasian century.” Current and former Prime Ministers from four of the world’s most economically powerful countries have endorsed recommendations contained within a landmark report on the future of the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR). Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, helped shape key elements of the 52-page strategic plan, which was warmly received by 10 Downing Street, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Britain’s Parliament. Mr. Staquf serves as one of 16 members of the Indo-Pacific Commission, which is chaired by former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a major foreign policy speech that accompanied the launch of the Commission’s report, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed “the UK’s acknowledgment of the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific Region” and said: “I endorse the report’s vision for a reinvigorated community of free and independent nations with a single overriding goal, namely: to reinforce a sustainable rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21st century.”

The Islamic Religious Community of Italy (COREIS): “Hagia Sophia unites Christians and Muslims across the globe. The largest international political network, inspired by Christianity, allies with the world’s largest Islamic organization to denounce the political weaponization of religion.”

Two days before the Islamic New Year (1 Muharram 1442 AH) Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini — President of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy (COREIS) — published a message from Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf to the 1.4 million Muslims who live in Italy.

In an article that accompanied the NU General Secretary’s message, COREIS welcomed the recent adoption — by Centrist Democrat International (CDI) and the European People’s Party — of a statement issued by the NU-based National Awakening Party (PKB) of Indonesia.

The PKB/CDI statement, which addressed concerns related to Turkey’s interventionist foreign policy, warned that “President Erdogan’s words and actions. . . threaten peace and security in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where similar narratives employed by al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram have led to countless terrorist attacks and produced millions of refugees.”