16 November 2022

The First R20: Indonesia Confronts Saudi Autocracy

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BALI, Indonesia, Nov. 8, 2022 /PRNewswire/ -- On November 2-3, R20 (the Religion 20), an engagement group of the G20, convened prominent global religious leaders in Bali to leverage the power of world religions to tackle pressing global challenges. BALI, Indonesia, Nov. 8, 2022 /PRNewswire/ -- On November 2-3, R20 (the Religion 20), an engagement group of the G20, convened prominent global religious leaders in Bali to leverage the power of world religions to tackle pressing global challenges. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/muslim-world-league-at-first-g20-religious-forum-r20-faith-leaders-call-for-global-alliance-of-religious-social--political-leaders-to-tackle-global-crises-301671913.html

As you know, the G20 represents the twenty most powerful economies of the world and it meets every year. With a rotating leadership, Indonesia is the 2022 convener this month, and President Joko Widodo has insisted that President Vladimir Putin attend (he did not in the end). Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had walked out of the G20 ministers conference in July as a result of Western nations’ fierce criticism of the Russian war in Ukraine. So far, Widodo’s entreaty to the G7 leaders to join regardless of Putin’s presence has succeeded to keep the G20 on track.

But Widodo’s objectives are even more ambitious than that. For the first time, Indonesia’s powerful Nahdatul Ulama organization (NU) – by far the world’s largest civil society Muslim organization (90 million members) – has initiated a two-day parallel religious conference called the Religion 20 Forum (R20) (Nov. 2-3) and has allowed the Saudi-run Muslim World League (MWL) the chance to co-sponsor it. There is a lot to unpack here. Let me begin with Indonesia and the NU organization.


Indonesia and the Nahdatul Ulama

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority nation (231 million). The second is Pakistan (212 million); third, India (200 million); fourth, Bangladesh (154 million); fifth, Nigeria (nearly 100 million). And simply being part of the G20 makes Indonesia even more influential. Add to that an Asian culture that favors social harmony over ideology and creed, and an Islamic heritage that tolerated at least some room for its traditional mix of Hindu and native rituals and practices.

The twentieth century witnessed a revival of Islam, no doubt sparked by the harsh reality of colonialism and by other influences of global Islam at the time. Two reform movements were founded in the 1920s that are unique to Indonesia and remain very influential today. The Muhammadiyya movement borrowed many features of the Islamic modernism of 19th-century pioneered by Middle Eastern scholars and activists Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. Their main insight is that Islamic law has to be reformed with more place given to reason. Its membership today is around 40 million.

The second organization remained until recently more traditional in its approach, while always seeking reform. Nahdatul Ulama means “Awakening (or Renaissance) of the Islamic Scholars.” Both organizations have established a network of pesantrens (residential religious schools for the youth) and universities, and continue to run multiple clinics and hospitals.

Yet in this century, NU has gradually paid more attention to the deradicalization of some of its youth and to the possible root causes of violent Islamic extremism, which has also been plaguing Indonesia. With the election of Yahya Cholil Staquf as chaiman of the NU Executive Council in 2021, NU took an even stronger stand against Islamic militancy and a bold push for democracy at every level of society. In a 2021 OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, Staquf tells of a recent speech he made at the United Nations on Islamic terrorism. He argued that the violence of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram and other terror groups finds support from some traditional Islamic teachings. In particular, . . .


“. . . the doctrine, goals and strategy of these extremists can be traced to specific tenets of Islam as historically practiced. Portions of classical Islamic law mandate Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity toward non-Muslims, and require the establishment of a universal Islamic state, or caliphate. ISIS is not an aberration from history.”


Staquf went on to explain that until the end of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 Muslim lands were ruled under the classical formulations of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which many people wrongly conflate with Sharia. That is unfortunate, he said, because the scholars’ interpretation of the sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna, hence Sharia, as opposed to fiqh) had created and reinforced over time a political ideology of Islamic supremacy that discriminated against religious minorities and glorified war as a way to expand political power and national borders. Fiqh, by definition, is a human interpretation and practical application of the Sharia in a particular context in a particular time. As such, it is fallible and in constant need of revision.

For instance, beyond the many rulings of fiqh that give more power to men and take away rights from women, “Classical Islamic orthodoxy stipulates death as the punishment for apostasy and makes the rights of non-Muslims contingent on a Muslim sovereign’s will, offering few protections to nonbelievers outside this highly discriminatory framework.” Then Staquf adds, “Millions of devout Muslims, including many in non-Muslim nations, regard the full implementation of these tenets as central to their faith.”

As mentioned above, this attachment to traditional Islamic jurisprudence is especially problematic when it can be used to justify violence done to non-Muslims and other Muslims. This is the core of his OpEd argument:


“The problem is that these tenets, which form the core of Islamist ideology, are inimical to peaceful coexistence in a globalized, pluralistic world. But we can’t bomb an ideology out of existence. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the world is Muslim, and many Muslims—me included—are prepared to die for our faith.

The world isn’t going to banish Islam, but it can and must banish the scourge of Islamic extremism. This will require Muslims and non-Muslims to work together, drawing on peaceful aspects of Islamic teaching to encourage respect for religious pluralism and the fundamental dignity of every human being.”


Catholics and Protestants routinely killed each other up until the 18th century, Staquf notes. But then they reformed their theology to see each other as fellow human beings and, especially, as fellow Christians. Muslims today can to the same with their theology, which like their Jewish counterparts, is closely tied to their jurisprudence. NU is doing this very thing, discarding elements of fiqh that stand in the way of pluralism, “universal love and compassion,” and adopting the Nusantara Manifesto: “a theological framework for the renewal of Islamic orthodoxy—and abolished the legal category of “infidel” within Islamic law, so that non-Muslims may enjoy full equality as fellow citizens, rather than endure systemic discrimination and live at the sufferance of a Muslim ruler.” Staquf and his colleagues also call this “Humanitarian Islam.”

The Nusantara Manifesto (2018, see above link to download the 40-page pdf document) has a version of this in its opening and concluding paragraph:


“The Nusantara Manifesto represents a significant milestone within a long-term, systematic campaign—guided by the spiritual leadership of the world’s largest Muslim organization— designed to block the political weaponization of Islam, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, and to curtail the spread of communal hatred by fostering the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.”


How could such a radical reinterpretation of Islamic theology and law be in any way compatible with the puritanical and exclusionary ideology of the Saudi state (Wahhabism)? Mind boggles . . . and yet . . .


The surprising NU outreach to the Muslim World League

This “recontextualization of Islamic theology,” on the face of it, would be anathema to the Muslim World League (MWL), which since its inception was a propaganda tool of the ultraconservative Saudi religious ideology of Wahhabism. To be sure, the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MbS), has embarked on some cosmetic reforms like allowing women to drive and attend public football matches, and the youth to experience some Western-style entertainment. He also put the moral police on a much shorter leash. But none of that amounted to religious reform. As James M. Dorsey, incisive commentator on global Muslim affairs, put it, “Instead, it amounted to long overdue social change by decree.”

This deceptive window-dressing campaign is likely why the MWL jumped on the NU’s offer to jointly chair the R20. Dorsey ponders the relative advantages both sides saw in this partnership:


“Persuading the League to endorse a genuinely moderate form of Islam would have enormous significance. It would lend the prestige of the Custodian of Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, to Nahdlatul Ulama's effort to reform Islam. That, however, is a long shot, if not pie in the sky.

More likely, the League sees reputational benefit in its association with Nahdlatul Ulama. The League also probably hopes to co-opt the Indonesian movement to prevent it from becoming a serious competitor for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

Neither group may succeed in fulfilling its aspirations.

Nahdlatul Ulama has a century-long history of fiercely defending its independence and charting its moderation course.

At the same time, there is little reason to believe that the League can embrace anything but what Mr. Bin Salman authorises.

If the last two months provide an indication, Mr. Bin Salman and his loyal lieutenant, League secretary general Mohammed al-Issa, can, at best, be expected to opportunistically pay lip service to Humanitarian Islam.”


Dorsey’s comment about “the last two months” was a reference to the crown prince’s hard line when it comes to stamping out all political dissent in the kingdom. In fact, it seemed MbS saw President Biden’s July 2022 visit to him in Jeddah as a green light to quash even more fiercely any sign of protest under his de facto rule. To wit, 34-year-old mother of 2 young boys, Salma al-Shehab, was working on a PhD in Leeds, UK and decided to visit her family for the holidays in Saudi Arabia in December 2020. She was then arrested and handed down a 34-year prison sentence for following overseas Saudi dissidents on Twitter and retweeting some of their tweets. Apparently, this qualifies as threatening the integrity of the state. She is still in prison, alleging “abuse and harassment.” Since then, another Saudi woman, Nourah Bint Saeed al-Qahtani, was arrested and given a 45-year sentence for “using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia’s] social fabric.” MbS is obviously seeking to make an example of these women and sow terror among his would-be detractors.

Then just last month three members of the Howeitat tribe were put on death row for resisting an edict that forced them to leave their land to make way for the construction of Mr. bin Salman’s US$500 billion futuristic Neom megacity on the Red Sea. Civil rights, it seems, shine by their absence in Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, Dorsey’s comment about NU’s pluralism and democratic ideals rubbing off on the MWL as “pie in the sky” is understandable. Yet the crown prince knows very well that oil money will be drying up and he has sought to diversify the KSA economy. He has not pursued tourism as aggressively as his ambitious neighbor, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but in order to attract more business capital, both neighbors promote a “moderate Islam” that supports autocratic regimes like their own. That said, the UAE is open to at least a degree of religious pluralism in its realm, permitting, for instance, the building of churches in Abu Dhabi. Its Saudi neighbor, by contrast has never allowed such a thing.

A quick side bar on the UAE is warranted here, because despite sharing with the KSA a mission to defend autocratic governance on Islamic terms, it competes with its neighbor for economic, political and religious soft power in the Arabian Gulf and in global capitals. But it’s a game the Emiratis appear to be winning so far.

Dorsey posted a recent piece on the UAE’s top religious cleric, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, whose global influence could be seen in the 2016 Marrakesh conference in Morocco, where over 250 Muslim religious leaders, scholars and even some heads of state spoke out against the persecution of Christians and Yazidis under ISIS. The Marrakesh Declaration was notable for its ringing endorsement of religious freedom. But as Dorsey rightly points out, democracy is not on the table for Mr. Bin Bayyah:


“In Mr. Bin Bayyah's mind, autocracy, uninhibited by religious jurists who do not know their proper place, is best positioned to ensure societal peace. Mr. Bin Bayyah remained silent when his Emirati paymasters rendered his theory obsolete with military interventions in Libya and Yemen. The interventions fueled civil wars while political and financial support for anti-government protests in Egypt that overthrew the country’s first and only democratically elected president in 2013 produced a brutal dictatorship.”


NU versus MWL: justice as rights versus traditional fiqh

Quoting from Yahya Cholil Staquf’s OpEd above gave you the impression that his main objective was dismantling the scourge of Islamic-related extremism and violence. But he also demonstrated that this ideology was fed in part by the traditional worldview of Islamic jurisprudence (the world being divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War; hence, by military means—by using the “lesser jihad”—we can expand the borders of Islam until, God willing, it encompasses the whole world). Therefore, a bold and clear-eyed revamping of classical Islamic fiqh is in order. It includes not only eliminating any tacit support for military action in order to advance God’s cause, but also a number of issues that until now justify the discrimination against women’s rights, religious minority rights, and bolster autocratic regimes that suppress the rights of citizens to choose political leaders to represent them. In other words, the KSA and the UAE’s bid to spread their top-down, monarchical form of “moderate” Islam, with an ulama class subservient to the ruler’s every wish, will not succeed if the NU has its way.

So how did the inaugural R20 proceed? According to the British Religion Media Centre’s report, over 300 religious leaders came from around the world. Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah was one of several keynote speakers, but the article features MWL secretary-general Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa right from the start, indicating that he is also a Saudi politician, “widely regarded as moderate, challenging extremism and promoting peace, dialogue and respect.”

Words are cheap, as they say, but in an interview with the Religion Media Centre Dr. al-Issa offered a judicious remark about the passing of the baton to India, next year’s host of the G20 and now the R20. As many conflicts today have roots in religious identity, he noted, “conflict resolution and peace building must involve society’s moral and faith leadership.” Since the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was prominently represented in this conference, Shaykh al-Issa, while affirming clearly India’s right to select its own delegates for next year’s forum, he also cautioned that “it is better to communicate than create a void where misunderstandings accumulated.” Keep in mind that RSS people are the ones primarily responsible for attacks on Muslims, destructions of their homes and shops by bulldozers, with these tensions spreading into the Indian diaspora in the West. Here I can see the MWL playing a constructive peace building role.

But when it comes to democratic ideals grounded in the human rights of all human beings as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent covenants, I am afraid that statements made by the likes of al-Issa and Bin Bayyah are more about gaining soft power and cleaning up their reputations. NU’s Humanitarian Islam, by contrast, has embarked on a courageous plan to reform traditional Islamic jurisprudence. That is not what these men have signed up for.

Still, after all this reading and pondering about the very first R20 and its launching by NU with the support of Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo (who spoke at the R20), I come away encouraged that this momentum will likely produce change in the long run. One reason is the clarity of the goals established from the onset by NU. The Final Communiqué (available in this article) bears this out. The final goal says it all: “foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.” As I wrote in my book on justice and love, justice is about rights and it leads to a society in which everyone finds their place and are able to flourish – yes, and able to have a political voice.

Second, the most prominent speakers listed by the MLW on its news website. In order they are (notice NU comes after MLW):


      1. Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia
      2. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary-General of Muslim World League
      3. Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama
      4. Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Vatican)
      5. Thomas Schirrmacher, Secretary General of the Protestant World Evangelical Alliance
      6. Archbishop Henry Chukwudum Ndukuba, Primate of the Church of Nigeria
      7. Reverend Yoshinobu Miyake, Chairman of International Shinto Studies Association
      8. Swami Govind Dev Giri
      9. Rabbi Silvina Chemen, Professor at Latin American Rabbinical Seminary
      10. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayah, Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies
      11. Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq


Pope Francis also addressed the assembly in a recorded statement. Bin Bayyah appears (with typo), but in his connection to an NGO he helped to found. There are no Orthodox Christian leaders, but we find the Vatican represented along with the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic Church, the top Anglican leader in Africa, the leader of the World Evangelical Alliance representing 600 million followers globally, and finally, a Shinto, a Hindu and a Latin American Jewish professor. Many others were there also. See in particular this short video promoting the participation of the Mormon leader. It will give you a better feel for the pageantry of such occasions. [See also this 45-second Instagram montage of the handover ceremony to India]

But one thing is for sure. We should all applaud any initiative that seeks to make religion a solution to our world’s many problems, while condemning the many ways it has contributed to violence and oppression. We are in the debt of Indonesia’s Humanitarian Islam.