NU, Muhammadiyah to tackle extremism

Indonesia's two largest Muslim organizations -- Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadyah -- urged the country's Muslims on Wednesday to promote peace and brotherhood with people of other religions.

Hasyim Muzadi and Syafi'i Ma'arif, chairmen of NU and Muhammadyah respectively, said that the Muslim people must place the country's integrity before all else and respect religious plurality.

They also said that the two organizations would keep their distance from involvement in political disputes and become independent and nonpartisan Islamic groups.

"When we meet nationalist groups, or socialists, or even foreigners, they express concern that the face of Islam here will become increasingly brutal," Syafi'i told a press conference held at NU headquarters on Jl. Kramat Raya in Central Jakarta.

"They want us, as the two biggest organizations (in Indonesia), to project a calm image of Islam that protects people of other religions," he said.

Prior to the press conference, executives of two organizations held a closed-door meeting to discuss various problems the country faces, including the threat of disintegration that has been triggered by religious conflict.

Hasyim disclosed that the image of Islam has long been politicized by certain groups for vested interests. He also stressed that such radicalism demonstrated by the groups represents the political influences and not the Islamic way of thinking.

Indonesia is the world's biggest Muslim country with more than 90 percent of its 220-million people professing to be Muslims. Many have tried to promote the imposition of Islamic law over the last few years.

Following the downfall of former president Soeharto in 1998, many political parties have used Islamic principles as their base and used Islam as a political vehicle to achieve power.

One of their maneuvers was to insert the seven words of the 1945 Jakarta Charter into Article 29 of the 1945 Constitution. The words enjoin Muslims to uphold Islamic law.

The country has also been hit by prolonged sectarian conflicts, such as the ones in Maluku and Poso in Central Sulawesi. Many also believe that the bomb blasts on Christmas Eve in and around churches in several cities throughout the country in 2000 were part of plans of radical groups to terrorize non-Muslim people.

Two groups of Muslim hard-liners, Laskar Jihad and Islam Defenders Front (FPI) frequently took the law into their own hands, while police and other security personnel were powerless to stop them for fear of fierce retaliation.

The image of Islam has worsened, following the accusation by the U.S. government that Indonesian hard-liners have accommodated international terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Syafi'i further said that should the law enforcers be afraid to take stern measures against radical groups, they would pave the way for the birth of what he called another Taliban nation.

"My Christian friends once asked me whether they could still live here should the politicians insert the seven words of the Jakarta Charter into the 1945 Constitution. I replied that if the state threatens your lives, we will be the first to protect you.

"The right to follow one's religion is the basic right of every citizen. The state or other groups must not interfere with that," Syafi'i said.

Commenting on the people's assumption that Laskar Jihad and FPI held a prominent role in determining the image of Islam, Hasyim said: "They are our (NU and Muhammadyah) children, too. But, unfortunately we failed to give attention to them."

Both Hasyim and Syafi'i further said that the organizations were establishing a team to formulate future programs expected to give guidelines to the Muslim people from the grassroots up to the elite.

They also believed that reconciliation between the two big groups would be ongoing, as they realized that in the past, their competition in many aspects, including politics, has overtaken their concern for minority religions.

Competition between NU and Muhammadyah sharpened during the 1999 general election as the former NU chairman Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid established the political party called the National Awakening Party (PKB), while Amien Rais, speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly and former Muhammadyah chairman, established the National Mandate Party (PAN).

The relationship between the two broke into an open conflict as Amien, along with other politicians, ousted Gus Dur from the presidency last year.

* Published by The Jakarta Post on March 1, 2002