'Militant moderates' out in force to crush intolerance

Indonesian policemen guard members of the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia during a rally on April 16, 2017.
Indonesian policemen guard members of the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia during a rally on April 16, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA • Clad in camouflage and armed only with their convictions, the paramilitary wing of Indonesia's biggest Muslim organisation is on a campaign - to crush intolerance and defend the nation's inclusive brand of Islam.

The "militant moderates" from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which boasts 45 million members, are on the march as worries grow over the rise of ultra-conservative forces in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

Hundreds of the "militant moderates" swooped recently on a hotel hosting a meeting of a radical outfit, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, which wants to transform Indonesia into a "caliphate" run by syariah law.

They surrounded the building and forced an end to the meeting, before members were escorted away by police.

Ninety per cent of Indonesia's 255 million people are Muslims, but the nation is home to substantial religious minorities and several faiths are officially recognised.

It is these traditions that the NU, which has existed for almost a century, is seeking to defend.

It has been taking a more muscular approach by increasingly sending out its paramilitary wing, Banser, to take on the hardliners.


My forefathers, the clerics, as well as Christians and others, established this republic together. We all need to defend this legacy.



"My forefathers, the clerics, as well as Christians and others, established this republic together," said Banser national commander Alfa Isnaeni. "We all need to defend this legacy."

The NU says it has felt compelled to step in and expand its activities, in part due to the weakness of the government, which has long faced criticism for failing to crack down on ultra-conservatives.

There has been a growing number of attacks on minorities in Indonesia, from Muslim Shi'ites to Ahmadis to Christians, and concerns about intolerance surged after Jakarta's Christian governor was jailed for two years last month for blasphemy, in a case seen as politically motivated.

Indonesia is not governed by Islamic law, with the exception of western Aceh province, and efforts by hardliners to transform the archipelago into a syariah-ruled state have gained no traction.

There is little chance of this changing - a recent survey showed that only one in 10 Indonesians supports a caliphate - but the surge in intolerance has nevertheless caused jitters.

Members of Banser, which has a force about two million strong, do not carry arms but rely on sheer force of numbers to get their message across.

They confiscate banners and flags at rallies by hardline groups and hand the materials over to the police, justifying their actions by saying they are preventing conservative forces from trampling the country's inclusive ideology.

They also oppose Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia, and have forced preachers who follow the doctrine off the stage at public gatherings in some places.

The organisation is not just fighting radicalism in the street but also on a theological level.

NU youth wing Ansor wants to open dialogue with Islamic organisations and governments to build a global consensus among Muslims on adapting the interpretation of ancient Islamic laws, known as "fiqh", so that they suit the modern world.

NU secretary-general Yahya Cholil Staquf believes that promoting a more moderate form of Islam is urgently needed to tackle hardliners.

"We must fight them before they cause more damage," he said. "We will fight this to the end."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline ''Militant moderates' out in force to crush intolerance'. Subscribe