The NU way: A conundrum of social inclusion and economic development

The NU way: A conundrum of social inclusion and economic development

The month of July is momentous for the Nahdliyyin, the followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia. The founder of NU, Hasyim Asy’ari, passed away about 70 years ago this month. His legacy spanned decades. In 1899, he founded the Tebuireng pesantren (Islamic boarding school) which later became the largest of its kind in

The month of July is momentous for the Nahdliyyin, the followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia.

The founder of NU, Hasyim Asy’ari, passed away about 70 years ago this month. His legacy spanned decades. In 1899, he founded the Tebuireng pesantren (Islamic boarding school) which later became the largest of its kind in Java in the early 20th century. The school is considered one of the centers for the reformation of traditional Islamic teaching in Indonesia.

As the younger generation of Nahdhiyyin, we may reminisce about the evolution of NU from before independence until today, as illustrated in the following short examples.

NU was founded in 1926 by a group of prominent religious scholars, most of them pesantren leaders. The organization grew rapidly in the pre-independence period. Only five years after its birth, its members had expanded from 40,000 to 100,000 across 99 branches in Indonesia (Bruinnense, Barton, & Fealy, 1996). The modernization of Islamic teaching was the core of our founders’ vision.

Years later, the return of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid to Indonesia from his intellectual journey abroad, strengthened the standpoint of NU. He introduced a combination of traditional Islamic views and modern western learning to further reform the education system at pesantren.

Initially during the New Order, NU opted to oppose the government. Nonetheless, the stance was somewhat altered under the leadership of, among others, Achmad Siddiq and Gus Dur. This was a period when NU built a better relationship with the government. To comply with the ruler’s azas tunggal (sole foundation), NU was the first Islamic mass organization to accept Pancasila as its foundation while preserving Islamic values as its basic principles.

In addition to his unique leadership in cultural and social reforms, Gus Dur encouraged respect for minority groups. Gus Dur was a strong advocate for the equality of all Indonesian citizens. He strongly believed that democracy could go hand-in-hand with Islam in a Muslim-majority society like Indonesia (Bruinnese, Barton, & Fealy, 1996).

One of his monumental legacies as the fourth president of Indonesia was the revocation of Presidential Instruction No. 4/1967 on Chinese religion, beliefs and customs. This bold decision was aimed at protecting the culture and beliefs of minority Chinese-Indonesians.  

In recent years, NU teachings have played an important role in ensuring social harmony.  During the Dec. 2, 2016, peaceful demonstrations against then-Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, NU insisted that the rally was a show of solidarity among Muslims in response to domestic issues in Jakarta.

In the modern age, NU has taken advantage of information and communications technology to share Islamic teachings. For example, a study of the book Ihya by progressive NU figure Ulil Absar Abdalah, has been conducted on live stream since 2017. The book is the crème de la crème of pesantren teachings, which deal with the principles and practices of Islam. The program presents the real nuance and beauty of Islamic teachings, which are often overshadowed by the hardline Islamic movement

Interestingly, in the development of the NU’s teachings over the years, we have not really seen a vision about socioeconomic progress.

What we used to hear during our upbringing was the main credo of NU written in stone: Al Muhafadzah alal qadiimish shalih wal akhdzu bil jadiidil ashlah (Keep what is good from the old and adopt what is better from the new). It concerns the values of Nahdliyin to have a certain level of acceptance and adaptation without compromising the core of Islamic identity. From our perspective, the organization has put a lot of attention on social aspects and has let economic considerations fall behind. This might explain why structural change in Nahdliyin has not been achieved over the last few decades.

Let’s adopt the Chenery & Syrquin (1975) approach to transform NU society. The approach is measured by the accumulation of physical and human capital, the allocation of resources (demand, supply and trade), distribution and demographic trends.

For example, we might observe how the economy or the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has evolved in Sampang, where NU has a dominant representation as shown by the fact that PKB had a significant lead over PDIP in 2019. In this regency, the share of value added from agriculture to GDP has been stable at around 50 percent  On the contrary, the share of the services sector in the regency’s production declined from 2000-2013. The financial sector is often seen as a more modern sector, entailing a direct link with digitization and the increase of specialized skills (Antonelli, 1991).

In contrast, with approximately the same GDP of around Rp 17 trillion (US$1.2 billion), Madiun regency, a PDI-P stronghold, has achieved a more successful pattern of structural changes. While the majority of activities in Madiun are agricultural, the absorption of employment in financial services has jumped from 1 percent in 2009 to 3 percent in 2017.

As a point of departure for a deeper analysis, we might see a possible disconnect between the current vertical integration of NU elites at a higher ladder of function in the national context and NU at the grassroots level. The latter appears to have been left behind based on some socioeconomic measures. 

This is a call for the NU executive board to clearly disentangle the role of NU scholars so that they can not only focus on religious teachings but also empower the economy of the Nahdliyin. As NU accounts for a big portion of the population, improving the Nahdliyins’ livelihood will leverage the economy of Indonesia as a whole.

*} The writers are members of the Jakarta chapter of Nahdlatul Ulama’s Scholars Association (ISNU)

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