NU’s santris are definitely behind Jokowi-Ma’ruf
Said Aqil Siroj, General Chairman of Central Board, Nahdlatul Ulama
WITH the presidential and general elections barely two months away, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has picked the critical moment to hold a three-day national ulamas conference last week. The meet held at the Citangkolo Mifahul Huda Al-Azhar Islamic school in Banjar City, West Java, drew thousands of attendees and among the audience at the opening ceremony were President Joko Widodo and some of his ministers.
Political observers liken the event of NU—considered pro-Joko Widodo-KH Ma’ruf Amin organization—to the 212 Munajat Night, a religious gathering held at the National Monument compound in Central Jakarta, a week earlier. The mass prayer event organized by, among others, the Jakarta Ulema Council stirred up controversy after Neno Warisman, the deputy chair of the Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno national campaign team, read out a poem during the event bemoaning her fear for godlessness if God would not grant victory to her choice of candidates.
General Chairman of NU’s Central Board (PBNU) Said Aqil Siroj rejected the notion that the congress had a political agenda. He explained that the 2010 NU congress—NU’s highest forum—decreed that the board hold two national conferences during its term. Said was elected twice to chair the NU board, from 2010-2015 and 2015-2010. “The first conference was held in 2017 in Lombok and we had no choice but to hold the second meeting this year,” Said reasoned during the special interview with Tempo last Thursday.
Said, 65, revealed that the topics of the meeting’s agenda included a variety of issues—from plastic waste, industry 4.0, draft bills on pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and sexual violence eradication to the concept of Islam Nusantara or Islam of the archipelago. Discussions were held in Bahtsul Masail forum—a lengthy deliberation referring to the yellow book as usually done in pesantrens—and was divided into three commissions, Waqi’iyyah (current issues), Maudhuiyyah (thematic issues) and Qanuniyyah (legislative issues). Clerics’ recommendations were submitted to Vice President Jusuf Kalla who officially closed the event.
Albeit his objection to accusations against NU for playing practical politics, Said asserted that his organization indeed carried a considerable political weight due to its massive number of followers-over 60 million. “So, it has become a bone of contention among various parties,” said the professor of Sufism.
In the middle of his hectic schedule during the national conference, Said received Tempo’s Mohammad Reza Maulana and Raymundus Rikang. He talked at length about the nomination of KH Ma’ruf Amin, former chairman of NU’s advisory council, as a vice-presidential candidate, his relationship with President Jokowi as well as the political stance of the world’s largest Muslim mass organization but declined to comment on Ustad (preacher) Somad, a popular preacher with alleged anti-government views who has been seen visiting senior NU kyais (clerics). “What’s so important about Somad?” he asked back.
Many sides link the national ulema conference (Munas) and the NU grand conference to the presidential election. What is your response?
There is no relation. The timing happened to coincide. The 2015-2020 board’s first Munas was held in 2017 in Lombok. We have to hold another one promptly before the 2020 national congress. Like it or not, well, it has to be now. It has nothing whatsoever with practical politics. Yes, NU has a political weight due to its massive number of followers. So, it became the bone of contention among various groups. Therefore, I caution (my organization) against having banners bearing the Jokowi-Ma’ruf’s pictures.
But there are so many of them along the way from the Banjar city to the Citangkolo pesantren.
They were there already before the munas. The organizers only put up the NU flags. I also cautioned them against political yells. It’s true one of the vice-presidential candidates, Kyai Ma’ruf Amin, is a NU senior and also a former rais am (leader). The NU community of course feels the calling to support its senior without being nudged. NU’s militant cadres, particularly students, definitely stand behind Jokowi-Ma’ruf.
Does the conference’s theme of strengthening ukhuwah wathaniyah (compatriot or citizen brotherhood) have the correlation with the presidential election?
We have to welcome the presidential election with cheers. It is a celebration of our democracy. Like in a sport competition or a Qur’an recitation contest, everyone wants to win but contestants and supporters should maintain normal relations. Sadly, I feel that—be it intentionally or not though I feel it is intentionally—Prabowo and Jokowi’s supporters are being hostile to one another. There are remnants of animosity carried on from the Jakarta gubernatorial election. There are many rumors afloat accusing Jokowi of being China’s lackey, of criminalizing the religion and Muslim, or of having the tendency to ban NU and Muhammadiyah after he disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia or to criminalize other religious figures like he criminalized Habib Rizieq. Like who’s next.
(Chuckles)...This is serious. The atmosphere is more heated than that of 2014. I think the hostility can continue even after the elections are over but hopefully not. That’s why we reminded our community with the theme ‘strengthening ukhuwah wathaniyah’. Let us safeguard our unity, from before, during and after the elections.
Which is more important, ukhuwah islamiyah (Muslim brotherhood) or ukhuwah wathaniyah?
In the current situation, ukhuwah wathaniyah is, because the religion issue has long been politicized. Look at Neno Warisman who sobbed that they would no longer be able to worship if they lose. That is a religious issue. In this regard, ukhuwah wathaniyah is very critical.
NU is accused of playing politics in this election. Do you agree?
Not NU but Kyai Ma’ruf in his own personal capacity. I, for example, don’t belong to his campaign team.
But NU has declared its support for Jokowi-Ma’ruf.
There wasn’t any such declaration. NU doesn’t throw support behind Jokowi-Ma’ruf institutionally but we do feel the calling to support Kyai Ma’ruf because he is a NU leader.
Doesn’t that stance equate support?
No. It is a realistic and spontaneous stance. Kyai Ma’ruf was the rais am of PBNU (resigned after his nomination as the vice-presidential candidate). He’s been NU’s activist since young. Of course, we are obliged. Why should we support others?
If Jokowi did not pick Ma’ruf as his mate, could NU’s stance be different?
Yes. We wouldn’t have felt this kind of affinity. Unlike the 2004 presidential election. We were not solid that time because two of our leaders ran in the race, that is KH Hasyim Muzadi alongside Megawati and Salahuddin Wahid alongside Wiranto. We are solid this time, insha Allah.
You reportedly influenced Jokowi to choose Ma’ruf Amin as his vice-presidential candidate? Is it true?
I still recall that Wednesday, August 8, 2018, just a day before the announcement of Jokowi’s vice-presidential candidate. Pak Jokowi invited myself, Muhaimin Iskandar (the chairman of National Awakening Party) and Kyai Ma’ruf, one by one to the palace. I was at 1pm, Muhaimin 2:30pm and Kyai Ma’ruf at 5pm. Pak Jokowi asked me, “Who do you think is the most suitable candidate to accompany me?” and I answered, “Muhaimin.”
Not Ma’ruf Amin?
No. Muhaimin because he is the great-grandson of Mbah Bisri Syansuri, one of NU’s founders, and he has extensive political experience and is supported by East Java kyais. I expressed my opinion and we talked about other things after that. After the magrib (sun down) prayer, the three of us gathered at the NU headquarters (in Central Jakarta) and we asked one another, “what did the President say?” We were all asked about our opinions but were not informed of President’s decision.
There are rumors that NU would withdraw its support if Jokowi did not pick its cadre.
If Pak Jokowi chose, for example, Pak Mahfud Md., we wouldn’t stage protests. That’s the president’s prerogative. Therefore, choosing Kyai Ma’ruf is also entirely Pak Jokowi’s decision.
Some NU leaders such as Salahuddin Wahid rejected the nomination of Kyai Ma’ruf.
Everyone has his/her own political choice. Politics is ijtihadiyah (an effort or action not governed by the Qur’an) for worldly affairs. It’s different from religious matters, which is ruled and bound by the Qur’an and hadiths. When it comes to politics ijtihad, people can make their own choices based on their subjective argumentations and considerations.
Grandchildren of some NU founders openly support Prabowo. Does it signify divisions within NU?
Let them do so. Only in case of ijtihad diniyah, for example, if there are kyais who deviate in religious matters, then we protest.
They’ve pledged 60 percent of East Java votes for Prabowo…
Go ahead. They just talk. We can also say Jokowi will get 70 percent insha Allah (laughs)...
In your interview with Tempo in November 2016, you said that Jokowi was aloof from the ulemas. How about now?
Not now. That time before the Jakarta gubernatorial election, before the December 2, 2016 rally, Pak Jokowi was indeed quite detached from the ulemas.
When did the change occur?
Actually, Pak Jokowi has always been a good Muslim but because he had just won the election and directly appointed by the people, he didn’t seem to need ulemas’ support urgently in 2014. However, he turned to the ulemas when he realized the daunting challenges he was facing. Ulemas are also the country’s stakeholders.
How close are you to Jokowi?
Not personally. I visit him only when he invites me.
Jokowi is often perceived as anti-Islam. How does NU counter that issue?
Through Hari Santri, the most valuable gift from the President. This is the first time a president of Indonesia expressly recognized the role of santri (student in Islamic school) in the country’s struggle for independence. On October 22, 1945, KH Hasyim Asy’ari issued a fatwa (ruling) that defending the motherland is fardhu ‘ain, every Muslim’s duty. Without the fatwa, the people of Surabaya and the surrounding areas may not have fought fiercely against the colonist. Their heroic struggle was honored through Hari Pahlawan. In 2015, Jokowi declared October 22 as National Santri Day.
Apart from Hari Santri?
One of the members of the presidential advisory council is Yahya Cholil Staquf, Khatib Am (preacher/advisor) of PBNU. Then a member of presidential staff, Abdul Ghofar Rozin, is a son of Kyai Sahal (KH Ahmad Sahal Mahfudh, Chairman of Indonesian Ulema Council for the period 2000-2014). Then there is Juri Ardiantoro, Chairman of General Election Commission for 2016-2017 and also NU’s chairman, who is part of the presidential staff under Pak Moeldoko. Pak Jokowi and his father are both haj and his mother Sujiatmi Notomihardjo is an activist with the NU Muslimat in Solo. How can he be more Islamic? I don’t mean to flatter him here.
Jokowi is also alleged as a descendent of PKI members...
Here we go again, my God. Don’t let politics turn us into Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. There are groups wanting to change Indonesia to become Syria. That was the concern raised by Syekh Taufiq Ramadhan al-Buthi (the chairman of the Syrian ulema association who was present at the NU national conference in Banjar). The fall of Syria began with hoisting of a flag.
You mean the tauhid flag?
Yes. Their argument is it is Prophet’s flag. Prophet did not have a special flag and never raised any flag at mosques, for example. Flags or banners are only used as signs during wars. They were white, red, black, yellow, grey. Writing tauhid scriptures in indiscriminate places is makruh (discouraged). It is makruh to write lailahaillallah muhammadarrasulullah, on my cap. What if it falls in a toilet? This is one of the fatwas of Syekh Utsaimin, a Wahabi ulema from Saudi Arabia. He said that it was makruh to print tauhid statements on riyal notes because they can be stepped on and therefore it is haram (unlawful). So, all the claims about the flag is untrue.
Some believe that writing the tauhid statements strengthens one’s faith...
There is a hadith (Prophetic saying) that calls on believers to renew or refresh their faith by uttering lailahaillallah muhammadarrasulullah. It should be done via utterance, not via writing or flags.
Has Jokowi asked NU to reach out to ulemas who tend to have negative perceptions about the government?
As NU’s chairman, whether he asked me or not, I defend the constitution and the legitimate president. We already have a very painful precedent when Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid, the fourth Indonesian president) was unseated without clear charges.
“As NU’s chairman, whether he asked me or not, I defend the constitution and the legitimate president.”
Gus Dur was linked to the vanished State Logistics Agency (Bulog) funds and the financial aid from the Sultan of Brunei.
Everyone makes mistakes. Gus Dur did not violate the constitution and his role in the two cases were never proven but he was still deposed. That was a very disturbing incident. Therefore, whoever the president is, I am committed to make sure that NU defends him/her as long as he/she does not commit constitutional violations.
Do visits of several dais (preachers) with are considered to be at odds with the government, such as Abdul Somad, to ulemas show change in their political stance?
I don’t’ know their purposes. Why must you question others visiting other people? It’s normal. So what, if Ustad Somad wants to see Mbah Moen (Maimoen Zubair) or Habib Luthfi (Muhammad Luthfi bin Yahya). Why is it so important?
Because Somad has so many followers.
Come on. That’s not important, in my opinion. There is no need to ask or comment on that. If he visits an ambassador, Grand Syekh Al-Azhar Muhammad Ahmad al-Thayyeb or Imam of al-Haram Mosque Syekh Sholeh bin Abdullah bin Humaid, then it’s worth raising questions. Jeez, he’s just Somad.
What is interesting about his visit?
I don’t think it’s interesting. Not all mubalig (preachers) possess knowledge. A preacher is someone who is good at talking and rhetoric. A person who has a deep knowledge of the religion, safeguards it and answers related questions is ulema. Like Kyai Maimoen Zubair, Kyai Nawawi Abdul Jalil in Sidogiri, Pasuruan; Gus Mus (Mustofa Bisri) and Kyai Ma’ruf. They are respected ulemas.
Is it true that Ustad Somad came from NU?
I don’t know. I don’t know him. He can join NU if he likes. It’s alright also if he doesn’t.
Gadjah Mada University (UGM) recommended NU and Muhammadiyah for Nobel Peace Prize because they consistently pushed for peace both domestically and overseas. Any progress?
Pak Todung Mulya Lubis as the ambassador to Norway and Iceland is still striving for it. UGM has indeed endorsed the nomination through seminars. I only found out about it later when UGM and Todung Mulya Lubis announced that.
But in reality, religious violence still continues such in the case of the disruption of the sea ritual ceremony and sawing off of a gravesite cross in Yogyakarta.
I am very familiar with the culture of our people. Indonesian people don’t suddenly turn that radical without backup. In other words, there are money and power behind the incidents.
Any idea of who that might be?
I know but I can’t let you know.
NU often voices about defending the Unitary Republic of Indonesia. How about the threats of separatism in Papua?
We always contribute our views. NU supports troop deployment in Papua but the issues must be resolved via humanitarian approach, not armed confrontation. During his short tenure—just 23 months—Gus Dur made so many overseas trips that the DPR (House of Representatives) accused him of going on vacations at the state’s expense. I was taken on such a trip to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In a Muslim country, he would briefly say, “Aceh wants independence. Please don’t assist them.” In Australia, he would say, “Papua wants independence. Please don’t assist them.” That’s what his mission was about. Gus Dur played a huge role in bringing together the country on the brink of going into many divisions. Demands for partition popped up from everywhere. Even Riau wanted independence.
How does NU as the largest Islamic organization view the phenomena of the 212 movement?
The Qur’an says that every action that is not done out of sincere intentions is like a bubble. It pops up and then disappears. But actions out of sincere hearts, such as those by NU and Muhammadiyah will never disappear. There may be ups and downs like when NU was repressed by the New Order regime. Thank God, we are still here. When Gus Dur passed away in 2009, there were concerns about his successor but it turned out ok. I’m sure NU is here to stay.
In your opinion, the 212 movement was driven by sincere intentions or political motives?
Everyone can judge that.
Said Aqil Siroj
Place and date of birth: Cirebon, West Java, July 3, 1953
Education: Bachelor in Ushuluddin and Dakwah, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1982); Masters in Comparative Religions, Umm al-Qura University, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1987); Professor of Islamic Akidah/Philosophy, Umm al-Qura University (1994)
Career: Postgraduate Lecturer, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta (1995-now); Deputy Director, Malang Islamic University (1997-1999)
Organization: General Chairman, Central Board, Nahdlatul Ulama (2010-now) ; Rais Syuriah, Central Board, Nahdlatul Ulama (1999-2004); Deputy Chairman, Fact-finding Team for May 1998 Riots (1998)