Islam in Indonesia has some unique characteristics which have attracted the attention of many scholars from various disciplines. Located far beyond the traditional centres of Islam’s Arab heartlands—such as Mecca and Egypt—Indonesia thrives as the most populous Muslim country in the world; Islam that is practised here often manages to escape from the entanglement of Islam with the Arab culture in favour of its fusion with the local customs. In addition to that, it is undeniable that the teachings and values of Islam have played a significant role in the (on-going process of) formation of the Indonesian identity and culture; the extent of influence of which—according to Nurcholish Madjid, one of the Indonesian leading intellectuals—is comparable to that of the influences of Islam towards the Western culture.
Viewed within this context, the key question that often appears to us is the way the authenticity of Islam should be interpreted, especially when the daily practices of the religion encounter local tradition. Historically speaking, a dispute over Islamic authenticity has existed for ages among Muslims in Indonesia. By the first decade of the twentieth century—when different groups of Muslims in what is later to be called Indonesia began to turn to an organized form of Islam—heated disputes erupted over their understandings and interpretations of the religion; trading insults back and forth over what each claimed to be “the true Islam” became commonplace. Presently similar issues of authenticity have once again entered the public domain; this time in a manner that is more political, more radical, and often involving violent actions, as a few groups of hard-liner Muslims promoting a radical interpretation of Islam begin to encroach on the political arena in the country.
Yet, at the academic level the questions about authenticity have recently lost its significance and are deemed irrelevant. For there is an emerging understanding that groups of Muslims of every creed have constructed an authentic model of Islam of their own right. At this point, the theoretical questions put forward are as follows: Who has the right to speak in the name of Islam? How do Muslims produce authority? How can the discourses they produced influence the umma? How are these discourses contested amongst different groups of Muslims, who made similar endeavours toward the production of an Islamic authority in their own right? What are the consequences of such dynamics seen from religious, social, and political perspectives?
In relation to the above mentioned issues, a controversial term of “Islam Nusantara” has lately emerged in Indonesia, especially after it became the pivotal theme of the 33rd Congress of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), held on August 2015 in Jombang, East Java. The term nevertheless, as Azyumardi Azra argues, is by no means new, for it refers to the religion of Islam which has developed in what is called ‘Nusantara’, (lit. archipelago) covering the territories of Indonesia, Malaysia, South Thailand (Patani), Singapore, South Philippine (Moro), and Kampuchea.
Still according to Azra, the basic characters of the orthodoxy of “Islam Nusantara”, congruent with that of “Southeast Asian Islam,” consist of three constructive elements: (1) the theology of Asy’ariyah, (2) the Syafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence (with a variety of lesser degree in accommodating the other three schools within the Sunnite Islamic jurisprudence), and (3) the mysticism of al-Ghazali, either those individually or collectively practised through Sufi orders. In regards to the issues of socio-religious identity, Islam Nusantara is identified as both discourses and practices of Islam that give respect to local culture and emphasize an approach of ‘dakwah’ that is tolerant, inclusive and compassionate. Thus, more often than not the term of Islam Nusantara is identified as a moderate Islam.
Considering its complexity and contested discourses, the concept of “Islam Nusantara” should be viewed as a category that is constructed, instead of given. It has to be seen as a text that is open to challenges coming from a variety of models of Islam that are lived, practised and developed in the archipelagic regions, in which all of these models view each other for politically dialectic opportunities and influences. As an open text, “Islam Nusantara” will have experienced (if not will have been tested by) some fissures, breaks, and ambiguities when responding to social, political and economic problems that happen in society. For an example, how does it maintain the characters of its socio-religious identity when the increasing number of middle-class Muslims are prone to see Islam as a legitimate source of power for populism? How does it relate itself, and respond, to other Islamic movements such as Islamism, radicalism, and Islamic puritanism? How does it resonate with the larger-scale crises of the global economy, politics, and society of the neoliberal system? How does it react to problems of social inequalities and marginalization, political oppressions, and economic declines that many of its associates have suffered from? And to what extent is it sensitive to environmental issues such as ecological crisis at the local as well as global level and the future threats from climate change, that have greatly affected the archipelago, the place where Islam Nusantara has its main basis?
Re-questioning the compatibility of ‘Islam Nusantara’ to dialogue with the social, economic, and political aspects of Muslim societies in the local context is important, and in need of immediate actions, especially if we are to consider both the acceptability and significance of the notion of “Islam Nusantara” at the global level. In other words, critics of the discourse and practices of Islam Nusantara, spreading across Indonesian archipelago and other regions in Southeast Asia, can open the door for Islam Nusantara to contribute to solving the problems that our world have faced, such as religious radicalism, political identities, poverty and economic declines, conflict resolution and reconciliation, global injustice and inequality, ecological and environmental crisis etcetera.
In this context, Special Branch of Nahdlatul Ulama for The Netherlandsbrings these issues as the central theme of our international conference and cultural events.