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Indonesian pluralism to the fore
Publication Date : 07-02-2013
The moderate thrust of Indonesia's Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is a welcome development. With about 40 million followers, it has the distinction of being the world's largest Muslim organisation in the country that is home to the world's largest Muslim population. Like the other mass-based Indonesian Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, NU has substantial influence on the social thinking of its members and their families, including their stance on the place of religion in politics.
It is heartening, therefore, that NU chose to mark its 87th anniversary recently with a cultural performance that rejected a puritan opposition to music and theatre. It symbolically upheld Indonesia's syncretistic culture, which welcomes religious piety but is wary of sectarian intolerance and extremism infiltrating into religiosity.
An inclusive culture of peace and harmony had underpinned the Pancasila state - secular in all but name - during the iron rule of president Suharto. The passing of that era saw a flowering of political and civil activism, but also the erosion of a legacy of religious pluralism. NU's defiance of hard-line ideas is a reminder that Indonesian Muslims by and large do not subscribe to the practices of groups that oppose or attack members of other faiths, and even Muslim liberals, in the name of religious purity.
Following dramatic terrorist attacks on foreign and other targets in the opening years of this century, Indonesia has been largely successful in preventing massive violence. Its surveillance and intelligence operations have disrupted terror networks. However, the Indonesian state has found it harder to deal with the threat of religious extremism represented by groups such as the Islamic Defenders' Front, whose actions go against the Pancasila principle. Even when such groups do not engage in violence - although they often do so - they pose an insidious challenge to the fabric of society.
NU's gesture is an important rebuff to attempts by fringe groups to encroach into the mainstream of religious behaviour. It is hoped that it will encourage other organisations to take a stand against the radicalisation of piety that the country has been witnessing. Since Indonesia is a regional lynchpin given its size, population and geographical position, the message of tolerance and inclusivity sent out by NU can play a persuasive role beyond its shores too.
In the final analysis, the relationship between religious freedom and social and political liberty in countries where Muslims are in the majority will be shaped in no small measure by Muslims. Religious trajectories in Indonesia may go far in determining what happens on the religious scene in Southeast Asia as a whole.