Muslim leaders from around the world met in Jakarta this week to address the religious aspects of extremism and terrorism. The International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders was hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims 50 million members worldwide.
More than 300 religious leaders from 33 countries attended the two-day summit, as well as President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla of Indonesia. On Monday, Kalla denounced what he called radical youths’ misinterpretation of the idea of jihad (a word with a range of meanings), saying that such extremists mistakenly view violence and terrorism as a “shortcut” to heaven.
“That’s why the role of Islamic clerics is needed to do more to correct the misinterpretation,” Kalla said. “We gather here today for that purpose, to produce the solution to curb radicalism in the form of terrorism, wars and conflicts.”
NU is a hybrid Sunni religious body, political party and charity that launched its anti-extremism initiative in 2014, in response to the rise of the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State.
Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world — 190 million people — but since they have nearly always coexisted with Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, Indonesian society has evolved a liberal, pluralistic brand of Islam. NU leaders think this approach, known as Islam Nusantara, or “Islam of the Archipelago,” could be a powerful force against radicalization.
The source of turmoil in the Middle East is the absence of a “harmonious relationship” between nationalism and Islam, Said Aqil Siroj, NU’s general chairman, said at the summit.
While NU has been fighting extremism for two years, there was a particular sense of urgency to this week’s event. One reason might be the deadly attack in Jakarta on Jan. 14, in which eight people died, including four militants who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State. It was the first major terrorist attack in Indonesia in seven years.
One session of ISOMIL examined how efforts to eliminate radicalism could themselves constitute a form of jihad, or holy war, according to a conference agenda. Other topics on the slate included uniting the global community of Muslims against extremism and fighting Islamophobia.
Lately there have been some cracks in Indonesia’s liberal Islamic consensus. About 500 Indonesians have gone to fight for the Islamic State in Syria, according to the BBC. There is also growing support for some elements of Sharia law in the country, like bans on alcohol and gambling, the country’s minister of religious affairs told the BBC.
At the local level, NU has tried to spread its message by engaging young Indonesians as volunteer “cyber warriors” to counter radical content on social media. But at this week’s summit, NU Secretary-General Yahya Cholil Staquf admitted that these efforts were still “minuscule” when compared to the Islamic State’s “extraordinary” network.
On Tuesday, at the end of the summit, the attendees published a “Jakarta Declaration” calling for an international coalition of religious groups and governments to dismantle the religious backing of extremism and terrorism.