Indonesia’s ‘militant moderates’ fight religious intolerance

This picture taken on February 3, 2017 shows members of the Banser Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, a paramilitary wing of Indonesia's biggest Muslim organisation Nahdatul Ulama (NU), during a roll call in Sidoarjo. 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. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2017
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Indonesia’s ‘militant moderates’ fight religious intolerance

INDONESIA: Clad in camouflage and armed only with their convictions, the paramilitary wing of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organization is on a campaign — to crush intolerance and defend the nation’s inclusive brand of Islam.
The “militant moderates” from the Nahdlatul Ulama, 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 country.
Hundreds of them 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 sharia law.
They surrounded the building and forced an end to the meeting, before members were escorted away by police.
Ninety percent of Indonesia’s 255 million people are Muslim but the nation is home to substantial religious minorities and several faiths are officially recognized.
It is these traditions that the Nahdlatul Ulama (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 hard-liners.
“My forefathers the clerics, as well as Christians and others, established this republic together,” Banser’s national commander, Alfa Isnaeni, told AFP.
“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 Shiites and 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 hard-liners to transform the archipelago into a sharia-ruled state have gained no traction.
There is little chance of this changing — a recent survey showed only one in 10 Indonesians support 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 hard-line groups and hand them 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 originates in Saudi Arabia, and have forced preachers who follow the doctrine off stage at public gatherings in some places.
Their battle cry is “N — K — R — I” — the Indonesian acronym for the term “the United State of the Indonesian Republic,” highlighting their desire to keep the country together and strong.
“Anyone disagreeing with ‘NKRI’, or calling for a caliphate, will have to face us,” Isnaeni said.
In recent weeks, they have also helped protect several members of the public targeted by hard-line Muslim groups after posting anti-radical messages on social media.
The group holds rallies across Indonesia and has signed up thousands of new recruits to strengthen their efforts.
The organization is not just fighting radicalism in the street but also on a theological level.
NU youth wing Ansor wants to open dialogue with Islamic organizations 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.
It wants recognition among Muslims that followers of Islam and others are equal, and a focus on the importance of the modern nation state and a constitution as guiding principles for a country, as opposed to sharia law.
The NU’s efforts have sparked anger among conservatives, with some accusing them of being un-Islamic and defenders of non-Muslim “infidels” and Shiites, a Muslim minority regarded as a deviant sect by Indonesia’s mostly Sunni Muslim population.
Greg Fealy, an expert on Islam from the Australian National University, praised NU’s “impressive” efforts but warned: “I suspect real world political considerations and interests will prove a major obstacle to this being taken up internationally, let alone in Indonesia.”
But NU’s secretary general Yahya Cholil Staquf believes promoting a more moderate form of Islam is urgent to tackle hard-liners.
“We must fight them before they cause more damage,” he told AFP. “We will fight this to the end.”


US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

Updated 20 January 2019
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US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

  • US and Pakistan should have “strategic engagement”, not transactional relationship
  • The American senator sees a “unique opportunity” to change diplomatic direction of US-Pakistan ties

ISLAMABAD:  US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Sunday President Donald Trump should meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as soon as possible to reset long-difficult US relations with Pakistan and push for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

The comments, which add to growing signs of improved relations between Islamabad and Washington, come amid efforts to press on with talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at an agreement to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan.

"I've seen things change here and all in a positive direction," Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has generally been a staunch supporter of Trump, told a news conference in Islamabad.

He said a meeting with Khan, who has declared strong support for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, would leave Trump "far more enthusiastic about the region than he is today".

"With Prime Minister Khan we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship," he said. A previously transactional relationship, based on rewards for services rendered, should be replaced by "strategic engagement", including a free trade agreement, he said.

US relations with Pakistan have long been dogged by suspicions that elements in the Pakistani establishment were aiding the Taliban, a charge Islamabad strongly denies. However, relations have appeared to improve in recent months amid efforts to push the Taliban towards a peace deal.

Trump, who has in the past argued for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, has made it clear he wants to see a peace accord reached rapidly although the Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with the Afghan government.

Graham's trip to Pakistan coincided with a visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and top military commanders including General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command.

Khalilzad left Islamabad without announcing a new date for talks with Taliban representatives, who have refused further meetings until the US side agrees to discuss a timetable for withdrawing its forces.

The uncertainty has been increased by reports that Trump is prepared to order more than 5,000 US troops out of Afghanistan, a move that would represent a sharp change in course from Washington's previous policy of stepping up military action against the Taliban.

With Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a year and struggling to hold back the Taliban insurgency, the reports have caused alarm in Kabul, prompting many close to the government to question the US commitment to Afghanistan.

Asked whether there had been confusion over the US message, Graham, who has called for a Senate hearing on Trump's plans to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, said "without a doubt" but added that he did not believe Washington would stand by and allow a Taliban victory.

"The world's not going to let the Taliban take Afghanistan over by force of arms. That would be unconscionable," he told Reuters. "Any president who let that happen would go down in history very poorly."