It has become somewhat fashionable of late to hold up Indonesia as a model of so-called "tolerant Islam". The term is somewhat obnoxious, as it implies that tolerance is not something intrinsic to Islam. That being said, Indonesia has had undeniable success in achieving a peaceful coexistence between the country's predominantly Muslim population and its many religious minorities. Yet, all is not well in Indonesia, and its much celebrated tolerance is under threat.
The country's and the world's largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), is meeting this week to elect a new secretary general. If any group can claim the lion's share of credit for promoting inter-religious harmony in Indonesia, it is the NU. A lack of clear guidance from the group's senior leadership is being partially blamed for a rise in religious tensions in Indonesia. Its message of piety and tolerance is being increasingly challenged by more radical messages. The NU's appeal, especially among young people, is waning.
The NU itself blames mission creep for its current travails. An organisation that focused solely on promoting social welfare and religious education became entwined with politics when it launched the National Awakening Party (NKP). Its participation in politics has only grown and the political wing of the organisation has a larger say in the agenda of the NU. Even its highly political secretary general is saying that the NU needs to get back to its roots.
The NU is right to understand the importance of re-examining its mission. The rising appeal of more extreme interpretations of Islam is a risk throughout the Muslim world, but the growing intolerance shown towards Christians, Hindus and others is of particular concern in Indonesia where religious pluralism has been accepted for centuries. If even Indonesians are falling prey to the allure of radicalisation, then the Ummah has right to be concerned.
From the Arabian Peninsula it is sometimes easy to forget that almost half of the world's Muslim population resides to our East. More attention must be paid to the work of the Ulema in the East to combat the spread of extremism. The fight against radicalisation is not unique to any one Muslim country, and it has been ongoing before the world became aware of it on September 11, 2001. Indonesia is a front line in the battle against extremism and intolerance. Luckily, the NU appears to realise the importance of its role, which extends far beyond Indonesia.