Greg Fealy: The Squabbling Political Elite Inside Nahdlatul Ulama

In this interview, Greg Fealy revealed the rivalry and constellation that has been going on among the elites inside Nahdlatul Ulama, a religious organization in Indonesia, since 1960 up to now. Greg tried to analyze how the elite NU, from the generation of Hasbullah Wahab to Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) as captains of the organization, face the political world and the State.


Greg Fealy is a political historian based at the Australian National University (ANU); his studies focus on religious politics in Indonesia. His dissertation was about the study on the traditional Islamic party Nahdlatul Ulama and was translated to Bahasa Indonesia entitled “Ijtihad Politik Ulama: Sejarah Nahdlatul Ulama, 1952-1967 (LKiS, Yogyakarta, 2003). Some of his important works are Nahdlatul Ulama, Traditional Islam and Modernity in Indonesia (co-edited with Greg Barton, 1996).


Greg Fealy presented the history of Indonesia in the years 1965 and 1966 at the National University of Singapore (NUS), thus I had a chance to interview him about the existence of NU.




NU under the Old Order


CRCS: In 1959, Masyumi was dissolved, in the early 1960s, PSI was dissolved as well, and a lot of floating mass during that time, there were also dispersal and mass killing of PKI members in 1965, how do you see the political constellation in the Old Order?

Greg Fealy (


Greg Fealy:My opinion is after Masyumi GPI and PII were dissolved, most of their members return to their original organizations. Muhammadiyah, Persis, Al Irsyad etc. Not a lot of “turncoat” to the NU, because if we speak of evidence, there were indeed not much. There are documentations that some elites hope that NU can take the support of Masyumi for the sake of their party. But ever since 1962, there are registration processes, and all political parties that want to survive must register all of their members. There are minimum requirements, such as the number of members, number of branches etc. From this information, it is true that the number of NU members increase in Masyumi especially outside Java and in some big cities in Java. In addition, I think there is no indication that NU can be a new member of the Masyumi. If you look at the history of the separation of NU and Masyumi, it is quite clear that at that time NU invited almost all the groups to be considered traditionalist. Ahlus Sunna Wal Jamaah, and other organizations that were regarded lose to NU. These organizations are considered, in terms of belief, almost similar to NU; however, are not considered modernist or reformist. Nevertheless, each of the local Islamic organization and other small organizations remain with Masyumi because they assume that it is a political vehicle of NU itself. So, when NU became no longer connected with Masyumi, they established the Muslims League and never follow Masyumi. Therefore, there were three parties that left Masyumi namely: NU, Persis and PSII; and also one of the smaller organizations in South Sulawesi.


CRCS: So, what were the manners of Islamic parties and other organizations facing NU decision?


Greg Fealy: In the early 1950s, in fact there had already been a clear decision of Masyumi that they do not want to join the new alliance of that political Islam. In 1960, when Masyumi was dissolved, the decision of Islamic organizations, such as the Masyumi, Matlailand Al Anwar and Al Jamaah Wasliah, still do not want to join NU. So, I really have a hesitation that there was a drastic increase in number of NU members which were obtained when Masyumi was disbanded. If you look at a number of official lists and the number of party members in 1962, NU was the biggest party at that time because they were slightly more efficient in the levels of membership. But out of ten parties that obtained permits from the State, NU was the largest party, however, was then defeated by the members of PKI in 1965. So, the mobility of Islamic supporters was not very high at that time. Most post-Masyumi disillusioned members chose to return to the active social organizations such as Muhammadiyah, Persis and Al Irsyad, rather than participate in NU.


CRCS: How do you see the figures of NU during the early 1960s, such as the KH, Wahab Hasbullah, Idham Chalid Saifuddin Zuhri at that time? Did NU experience a crisis on leadership after the death of Hasyim Ashyari in 1947 and Wahid Hasyim in 1952; that was why the elites did not have strength in the grassroots level?


Greg Fealy: For Wahab Hasbullah, especially during the post-1952, he became the architect in direct involvement with NU in the political party system. It was very obvious in the conference held in 1969, NU’s Kyais felt humiliated especially Natsir and Mohammad Roem. Since 1952, Wahab had already planned to separate from Masyumi. Then there was also that controversy about who will be the next minister of Religion. And behind the process of separation of Masyumi and NU, the most prominent figure was Wahab Hasbullah. Indeed, in 1952 most of the congressmen also did not like to separate from Masyumi because they still doubt the capacity of NU in the political realm. But Wahab Hasbullah provided an ultimatum, if NU would not be separated from Masyumi and the congress would not support him, then he would step out along with a few trusted cadres and build their own party. After that ultimatum, NU became a new political party. In this case, there were some primary sources that show this evidence in the person of Saifuddin Zuhri who became the religious minister in the Old Order. His articles became sources of debate in congress. I am quite sure, without Wahab Hasbullah, NU, most likely, will be stuck in Masyumi. NU’s special courage came from Wahab Hasbullah, he held the key role and it was very crucial.


CRCS: In the political constellation which involves Kyai NU, like Kyai Wahab Hasbullah, KH. Achmad Siddiq and Idham Chalid, were they provided with education before politics?


Greg Fealy: In my dissertation published by LKiS, there is politics of education before NU separated from Masyumi, there was a kind of political institutions founded by NU elites, Wahab Hasbullah, Idham Chalid to improve insight of NU on political ideology. There were also several magazines which were published at that time before the 1955 elections which aimed to educate people about the issue of political Nahdliyin. There were Kyai who were politically- oriented but there were also pesantren-oriented. In Achmad Siddiq’s case, he resigned from the DPR-RI, and also PBNU, and KUA officials in Jember, because he was more like of a pesantren-oriented. Most Kyais were interested in the field of politics, wanted to sit in the Legislative, and DPR-RI. There were some Kyais who quickly learned political tricks and political practices. There was one who was very naive in playing politics as ulama rather than as a politician. Although there are many Kyais who do not have university degrees, they feel that they represent the Muslims and they feel it is important to be in the parliament. In the case of Wahab Hasbullah and Idham Chalid, theirs was like a negotiation, a political maneuvering, because for their politics was a path that guarantees the future of NU. Especially that the post in the Ministry of Religious Affairs is very important post to occupy in the religious-political realm. That is why NU is incessantly marginalized by Masyumi members.


CRCS: Wahab Hasbullah, Idham Chalid and Saifuddin Zuhri were very pro-Soekarno, agreed with NASAKOM (Religious Nationalist and Communist), agreed with Soekarno’s guided democracy, the cabinet agreed with the one hundred ministers; how were their relationships with KH. Achmad Siddiq, Yusuf Hasyim, KH. Machrus Ali and KH Bisri syamsuri who was Hasbullah Wahab first cousin? Most of them did not like Soekarno and PKI?


Greg Fealy: Yes, but, in general, all Kyai did not like the guided democracy and NASAKOM. Although Idham Chalid wrote several books about NASAKOM, but I think he felt like, at that time, forced by the political situation. If they do not support the real guided democracy, it is dangerous for NU, and also dangerous to Idham’s political career. According to them, if NU will not replicate the Soekarno rhetoric, NU’s position is threatened. If NU is threatened, then there will be no Islamic mass organizations that could have an access to the political system. Only through NU that Muslims are well-represented. And with cases, such as HMI, when organizations were threatened by PKI to be prohibited, NU defended. HMI ultimately survived. NU was very proud, because that was a proof that they were more effectively involved in the political system than the others. Therefore, involvement in democracy for the political views of NU was also a support to the existence of nationalists, communists etc. But their preference, they wished to dismiss PKI. This is different from the Islamist militant group which is very harmful to the Indonesian political life. Yusuf Hasyim, Machrus Ali and Syubhan considered themselves more ready to confront the power PKI. In this case, they were more prepared in facing PKI, but they also wanted to use the institutions of democracy for the benefit of NU. If PKI members go in an institution, NU members then automatically will also go, usually the person is from the militant NU, not the person who is accommodative.


CRCS: Do NU members have the opportunist attitude? In the Old Order of Soekarno, they supported him, and when the New Order began to stand, persons like Nudhin Lubis and Achmad Syaichu encouraged and supported Soeharto to be president.


Greg Fealy: This accusation is often thrown to NU. Individually speaking, I clearly think, there are many people who took the opportunity of the New Order at that time. I think Achmad Syaichu, during that time, was very anti-communist. His hatred towards PKI was quite evident. In every meeting, he was quite vocal, although, he supported Soekarno. He often debated with the foster child of Kyai Wahab Hasbullah regarding PKI issues. Nurdin Lubis was also a very proud anti-PKI and he was against aksi sepihak doing by PKI. One of the issues was that there a person who was considered a cheat to Soekarno; like Syaichu. Once, he endorsed Soekarno as president for life, when he was the vice chairman of DPR-RI. But, he also supported the ouster of Soekarno after the G-30s. In the case of Nurdin Lubis, he was more consistent I think. If the problem of opportunistic, to deny or accept this allegation, we need to examine their positions before and after.


CRCS: What was the fate of the NU elites who supported Soekarno in the New Order?


Greg Fealy: Idham Chalid, for instance, although had an obviously heavy heart to see the putridity of Bung Karno, he still visited Soekarno until 1967. I think he was not happy with the treatment of the New Order to Soekarno. Wahab Hasbullah also, he was quite speechless. Members of NU wanted to support to Soeharto but they still remained loyal to Soekarno, so eventually they had to support the political situation because of Soeharto’s oppression. Idham became a member of AMPERA cabinet, Soeharto’s cabinet. I think there was truth to Idham case.


CRCS: Did other religious organizations take opportunistic attitude toward authority?


Greg Fealy: I think the criticism to NU as opportunist is not correct. For instance, Muhammadiyah, This organization once gave a degree to Soekarno. Muhammadiyah also took distance to Masyumi to save themselves, in the years 1958 to 1959, when they saw that the position of Masyumi was very weak and risky. Then there were some Muhammadiyah leaders who entered the cabinet of guided democracy, although PP Muhammadiyah was against that activities, but they never fought or expelled members. Muhammadiyah’s attitude is not so much with the attitude of NU; the most important for them which they gave priority were to rescue their organization and assets. The Muhammadiyah leaders thought that if this organization will be prohibited, the fate of the hospitals, orphanages and schools, and university is threatened. So if you want to say that NU is opportunist, so does Muhammadiyah.



NU Down in the New Order

CRCS: What causes NU to be marginalized during the New Order, why was Soeharto not grateful to NU? During the process of “mass killing” of PKI, members of NU were active?


Greg Fealy: Personally, Soeharto was closer to Muhammadiyah. He taught in Muhammadiyah schools several times, even short period. And he was more sociable with the leaders of Muhammadiyah. At the beginning of the Soeharto’s New Order, Soehartoincreasingly aware that the figures of NU was identical with NU Soekarno, for example, Wahab Hasbullah, Idham Chalid, Zaifudin Zuhri, and Masykur. None of the NU leaders was personally close to the Soeharto, but NU leaders such as Yusuf Hasyim, Munasir were close to General Nasution. There were also some NU leaders who were close to Ali Murtopo, but the leaders of Muhammadiyah had more channels to access the New Order power. I also assume that the orientation of Soeharto NU characters were less matched to the New Order development plans. In terms of education and economic attitudes, NU tended to be protectionist and more nationalistic.


Hatib: How was the pace of NU leaders during the New Order?


Greg Fealy: NU elites did not agree with the entry of foreign capital, economic integration with international economy. Also, all NU elite were not members of Berkeley Mafia. Most NU members still believed in Islamic countries, even some persons were blatantly against Soeharto, including Subhan. He was critical about the pace of the New Order after 1967, especially when Soeharto delayed the general election until 1971. Then Subhan also protested when Soeharto cut the forces of political party outside Golkar, particularly in the case of the coalition parties in 1974. Yusuf Hasyim was also critical; he did not serve the New Order discourse. I think it was very clear why NU was marginalized during the New Order development. The relationship with Mukti Ali had a clear agenda that was almost the same with Soeharto, both in terms of economic development and religious pluralism, and Muhammadiyah as well.



NU at the present time

CRCS: Nowadays, how are the roles of the Kyai NU elite levels? Do they still have political power?


Greg Fealy: I think, the political authority of Kyai is declining. Seventy years ago, if you select Kyai Party A or Party B, then most santri will vote that party as well. Nevertheless, in the last 20 to 30 years, santri were starting to be more critical to the government. It was also a result of the New Order system. Many pesantrens and Kyai get financial support from Golkar or PDI. One consequence was the need to support Golkar and Soeharto. It was because Kyai had no choice. They wanted to secure the religious education activities and continue the existence of pesantren, so it was deal. A lot of santri also supported PPP or PDI at the time. And so far, I think many santri were “confused,” because all political parties wanted to represent NU overall, there was PKNU, PKB, PPP, PPNUI, there were also active as the Kyai Golkar which became a caleg (legislative candidate). Even there were many Kyai who had mutual lash-down and criticized each other. A lot of NU kyai spoke as though they were the only ones who speak the truth. I think for the integrity of NU, this is a very worrisome development. NU also has not matured, and still unsophisticated in playing in the multipartite political system.


CRCS: The statement of PBNU chairman, Hasyim Muzadi, encouraged NU members to support Yusuf Kalla in the presidential election in 2009, was it influential enough?


Greg Fealy: Hasyim Muzadi supported Yusuf Kalla’s candidacy for president by saying that Yusuf Kalla is best son of NU, and the only NU member who is chosen as presidential candidate. This was a violation to the NU’s Khittah 1926 because there was no official decision in selecting Kalla from PBNU. Hasyim Muzadi took his political stand personally. It is NU’s disadvantage because it is impossible for Yusuf Kalla to win. Besides that, this decision does not comply with the decision of the congress in 1984 in Situbondo, and congress in Lampung that restricts involvement of NU in politics. So, I think NU may return to politics in 1950s-1960s. The legacy of Gus Dur and Ahmad Siddiq is almost lost. NU also lost in either intellectual legacy, policy, internal party legacy, or social legacy, and it is quite troubled. This is different from Muhammadiyah, this organization uses many different political path, there are many in Golkar, the PPP and PAN. However, the internal discourse of Muhammadiyah remains tolerant to differences in political vision.


CRCS: So, how do you see the existence of Gus now, especially his involvement in PKB?


Greg Fealy: Currently, Gus Dur is very destructive to PKB, and Gus Dur said they betray the struggle of his own notion in the year 1980-1990s. During that time, he wanted to build the next generation of NU who can make decisions, political and independent. Gus Dur became a champion of democracy for Indonesia. He services to Indonesia and to NU was very huge. He protected religious minorities; he legalized minority religion, Kong Hucu and also protected Ahmadiyah. But, when he established PKB, he seemed to use it only for his own convenience, if he doesn’t like someone, he immediately removed that person. He seemed to forget his idealism in the past. He spent a lot of funds for party of the cases in court etc. Also, if there is a district decision to nominate someone to be caleg or cagub, he often manipulates and rejects this candidate.


CRCS: So what is the role of Gus Dur in PKB lately?


Greg Fealy: So, Gus Dur’s actions currently would damage the internal process of democratization of PKB, and also it does not mature members to engage in various decision-making and take responsibility in the party. The current system of PKB is highly dependent with the central leaders, especially with decision in dropping Yenny Wahid as secretary general of PKB. Yenny does not have background experience in NU organization at all. It was a mistake of Gus Dur. So, if Gus Dur will be no longer active in PKB, I think the party can begin to develop. To compete with parties like PKS, PAN, PDIP and Golkar, it should be able to build a good system of organization. However, until now almost none, because the system of routine meeting among branches rarely occurs in PKB. In building tradition of professionalism, PKB is very poor. If this will not be corrected by Muhaimin Iskandar, then this party will reduce in its future performance. So, this is a challenge to NU, how to serve the needs of the members, rather than serve the interests of the elite.


CRCS: Yeah right, thank you Sir for your time.




This post is also available in: Indonesian


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