James M. Dorsey

The battle for the soul of Islam: A game of seduction

A game of seduction

Two recent high-profile Arab events honouring Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate Muslim civil society movement, highlight a subtle tug-of-war over who will define ‘moderate Islam’ in the 21st century.

At the core of the tug-of-war is whether Islam in the 21st century will foster religiously and politically pluralistic societies or advocate autocracy.

The war pits autocratic, socially more liberal definitions of Islam that assert a religious obligation of ‘absolute obedience to the ruler’ and are propagated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt’s Al Azhar, the Cairo-based 1,054-year-old citadel of Islamic learning, against Nahdlatul Ulama’s pluralistic concept of Nusantara or Humanitarian Islam that advocates adherence to human rights.

Autocrats’ religious moderation is designed to meet economic diversification requirements and cater to youth aspirations for a less publicly restrictive and less ritualistic religious experience while maintaining tight political control.

In contrast to the Middle Eastern states’ version of religious moderation, Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept stresses religious and political pluralism and the unambigious endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To anchor its concept, Nahdlatul Ulama argues that Muslim jurisprudence needs reform to remove what the movement calls ‘outdated’ or ‘obsolete’ provisions. The reform would remove, among others, notions of supremacy and the caliphate and introduce categories such as the citizen with equal rights and the nation-state.

The Middle East-Asian tug of war takes on added significance with pressure on Muslim-majority states to embrace a vague, and undefined notion of ‘moderate Islam’ since the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington, the rise of the Islamic State a decade later, and energy-rich Gulf states’ efforts to diversify their economies.

For much of the last decade, autocrats chose to ignore Nahdlatul Ulama, the potentially most potent challenger to their ‘moderate,’ politically restrictive interpretation of the faith.

In 2018, Mohammad Al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World, dismissed a suggestion by an American interlocutor that he meet Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf in Mecca.

The League is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s main vehicle to project the kingdom as religiously moderate and tolerant.

“As for the Indonesian Imam Pak Yahya, I have never heard of him before… I regret to inform you that it would be difficult for me to meet with Pak Yahya due to an extremely previous busy schedule of meetings with international Islamic personalities,” Mr. Al-Issa said.

The cleric’s standoffishness stemmed as much from refusing to acknowledge Nahdlatul Ulama’s challenge as from an ingrained perception that Arabs hailing from Islam’s cradle were real Muslims unlike syncretic forms of the faith like those prevalent in Indonesia.

“It’s religious racism,” said Azyumardi Azra, an Islamic scholar.

Since then, the League and the UAE have realised that ignoring Nahdlatul Ulama with its 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, a political party represented in President Joko Widodo’s government, a religious authority of its own, access to the world’s corridors of power, a widespread educational infrastructure, and a five-million strong militia, would not neutralise the challenge posed by the group.

As a result, to counter the threat, the League and the UAE opted to engage with Nahdlatul Ulama in a bid to co-opt it, while at the same time competing with the group through the organisation of rival events and exerting influence in the world’s corridors of power.

Mr. Al-Issa secured a win when in 2022, the League co-hosted with Nahdlatul Ulama the Religion Forum 20, a summit of religious leaders in Bali on the eve of the Indonesia-chaired Group of 20 gathering of the heads of the world’s largest economies.

The League basked in the spotlight as a “non-government” promoter of inter-faith dialogue and tolerance although it is a wholly government-controlled organisation.

Even so, the League had hardly any visible impact on the Forum’s proceedings, much of which adhered to Nahdlatul Ulama’s agenda that is anathema to Mr. Al-Issa’s ambitions and those of his political master.

That has not stopped autocrats from attempting to co-opt Nahdlatul Ulama with little, if any, visible success.

Nahdlatul Ulama officials insist that engagement with their rivals does not come at the price of compromising on principles.

On the contrary, they argue, gestures like awarding the group a prestigious Emirati prize in February and Al Azhar’s earlier honouring of Nahdlatul Ulama’s beloved and legendary Al-Azhar-educated leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s first post-dictatorship democratically, enhance Nahdlatul Ulama’s prestige in the Muslim Middle East and beyond.

“I would…like to take this opportunity to invite people of goodwill of every faith and nation to join us in building a global movement to foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” Mr. Staquf said as he accepted the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity.

Mr. Staquf was referring to a grassroots movement for shared civilisational values that Nahdlatul Ulama through its Center for Shared Civilisational Values hopes to inspire. The movement’s envisioned values extend beyond the advocacy of lofty principles the UAE professes to embrace.

Alongside Nahdlatul Ulama, the award was also awarded to Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim civil society movement, cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub, and Sister Nelly Leon Correa, who supports women in prison.

Days earlier, Al-Azhar honoured the life and legacy of Mr. Wahid who inspired Humanitarian Islam and the notion of shared civlisational values, even though senior Al-Azhar figures attending Nahdlatul Ulama conferences in recent years refrained from endorsing, if not rejected some of the group’s key initiatives such as a call for the abolishment of the concept of a caliphate.

Unlike Al-Azhar luminaries that declined invitations to discuss the caliphate’s fate at a conference in Surabaya Mr. Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, chose to ignore Nahdlatul Ulama’s proposition in his remarks on video after cancelling his attendance.

Given Saudi practice, Mr. Al-Issa had good reason to ignore Nahdlatul Ulama’s initiatives to reform Islamic jurisprudence to ensure it upholds human rights and mitigates against discrimination irrespective of ethnicity, creed, or belief.

“The Saudi religious tradition is very sectarian. It refuses to recognise other Muslims… (They) are regarded as outside true Islam and should be Islamised… The Shiites like others were not regarded as true Muslims theologically,” said Saudi scholar and dissident Madawi al-Rasheed.

“The war in Yemen exposed that Saudi Arabia cannot get rid of its religious nationalism all together. It cannot get rid of the sectarianism of (its) religious nationalist narrative that excluded other Muslims who did not subscribe to the Wahhabi tradition,” Ms. Al-Rasheed added.

She noted that Mr. Bin Salman invited the kingdom’s religious scholars to visit the Saudi Yemeni border to inspire Saudi troops, by advising them that they were waging jihad against the rafidah, a derogatory ultraconservative Sunni Muslim reference to Shiites, whom Saudi conservatives view as heretics. Yemen’s Houthi rebels are Zaidis, a Shiite Muslim sect.

In February, authorities arrested ten soccer fans and summoned 150 other supporters of Saudi First Division club Al Safa FC for chanting Shiite Muslim slogans and songs during a match against Al Bukayriyah FC in the city of Safwa in the kingdom’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province.

Saudi authorities asserted that fans’ chants were “sectarian.”

The sports ministry dissolved Al Safa’s board immediately after the incident for failing to adhere to the kingdom’s laws and regulations.

In addition, the Saudi Football Federation’s Disciplinary and Ethics Committee ordered Al Safa to pay a US$53,300 fine. It also banned club fans from attending the team’s next five league matches.

The committee asserted that the fans had chanted slogans and songs that “violated the provisions of the disciplinary and ethics regulations.”

Speaking before the latest soccer incident, Ms. Madawi noted that Mr. Bin Salman’s brand of Saudi nationalism that emphasises a Saudi than an Arab or Muslim national identity has reinforced, not replaced, religious minorities’ and regional sub-identities.

“It generates a reaction, namely a revival of sub-identities,” particularly among groups who feel they have been excluded from Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to recast Saudi identity,” Ms. Al-Rasheed said.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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