Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia

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Revisionist NU History

By Kevin W. Fogg, May 22 2018 12:02PM

In today’s Jakarta Post, K.H. Yahya Cholil Staquf (a leader in Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and its outreach Bayt ar-Rahmah in North Carolina) has written another piece in his consistent call for the separation of Islam and politics and moderation in religion generally, this one generically titled “Islamist Politics in ‘Reformasi’ Indonesia.”


The article is a fine statement of the NU leadership’s opposition to transnationally-oriented Islamism and commitment to the Indonesian state, but it also includes a highly revisionist (I would argue, unsustainably revisionist) interpretation of NU’s history vis-à-vis Islam and the state. In the passage that surprised me most as a historian of Indonesia, the kyai writes, “During the 1950s and ‘60s, [Abdul] Wahab [Hasbullah, then leader of NU] blocked Masyumi from restoring the Jakarta Charter and transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state, supported Sukarno and the Indonesian military in repressing the Darul Islam and PRRI/Permesta rebellions, and allied with Soeharto to prevent a communist seizure of power, such as that which had already occurred to such devastating effect in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China, Korea and Tibet.”


It is worth breaking down these claims one by one:

1. Did Abdul Wahab Hasbullah and NU “block Masyumi from restoring the Jakarta Charter and transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state?” Unambiguously no. In the Constitutional Assembly (Konstituante) of Indonesia, which met from 1956-59 in Bandung, Wahab and the rest of the NU delegation supported the establishment of Islam as the foundation of the Indonesian constitution. Indeed, in the final votes of May and June 1959 before the Constitutional Assembly was unilaterally dissolved by President Sukarno, Wahab and most NU party members voted in favor of the Jakarta Charter—not against it!


2. Did NU “support Sukarno and the Indonesian military in repressing the Darul Islam and PRRI/Permesta rebellions?” Only sort of. As well-documented by Greg Fealy, NU did draw closer and closer to President Sukarno in the late 1950s, and thus grew closer to his allies in the armed forces, too. However, NU was not practically involved in the suppression of either rebellion. In fact, I have it on good authority from Prof. Mestika Zed (whose father-in-law was the head of NU in Central Sumatra in 1958) that it was the NU-faction in the provincial legislature that first put forward the motion of a ‘revolutionary’ rebel government, which led to PRRI. National NU leadership (including Wahab) does seem to have been opposed to both rebellions, though: Darul Islam for being too hardline about Islam (although this opposition was rarely foregrounded; cf. Remy Madinier’s discussion of Masjumi’s awkward position with regards to Darul Islam), and PRRI (less so Permesta) for being its former political rivals from Masjumi.


3. Did NU “ally with Soeharto to prevent a communist seizure of power?” Again, I think this is partly true and partly misleading. NU definitely had been opposed to PKI, vocally and publically, for many years from the 1940s, and this opposition became fever-pitched by the 1960s. NU definitely joined in the attacks and killings initiated by the army under Soeharto in 1965-67 in response to the supposed Communist-backed failed coup of 1 October 1965, and aspects of NU’s participation have been very deftly unpacked by Fealy and MacGregor in their 2010 article. However, this statement seems to be premised on the idea that the Communists were actively trying to seize control of the government through extra-legal means—an idea that many or most overseas historians of Indonesia would dispute.


So, by my tally, this paragraph from the kyai’s article has one strike and two balls (to use the baseball analogy, go Flying Squirrels)—no hits.


Perhaps more important that the historical fudges or flagrant revisionism themselves is the question of why an NU leader today would want to engage in such revisionism. This is partly a manifestation of NU’s continuing opposition to conservative, perhaps transnationally-inspired challenges from the right, which have been seen as eating away at NU’s dominant position in Indonesian Islam over the last two decades. By asserting that NU so strongly defends Indonesia, the leaders can imply that groups further to the right do not defend Indonesia and thus should not merit popular (or political) support. This revisionism also makes NU more appealing as a mass-base for political campaigns both this year and next, something very much in the interest of NU leaders hoping for various kinds of patronage and positions.


Although I can understand the revisionism and the reasons behind it, my position as a historian places me strongly opposed to this kind of tweaking (or denying) the facts to match the desired narrative. I think NU will grow stronger, not weaker, as a democratic force in Indonesia and the Muslim world more broadly if it honestly faces its history.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.