How Wahdah Islamiyah is altering both our understanding of global Islamic Salafi activism and Indonesian Islamic identity. 

In the last decade few Islamic movements have caught the attention of political and media pundits as much as the often-misunderstood global Salafi movement.

Based on emulating the original three generations of Muslims (the Sahabah, Tabi’un and al-Tabi’in) and a desire to return to ‘true’ Sunni Islam, proponents, at least in Indonesia, are frequently accused of denouncing local forms of Islamic practice and foregrounding a literal attempt to apply the Qur’an and Sunna while ignoring the finer esoteric nuances of Islamic faith.

However, Wahdah Islamiyah, an Indonesian Islamic organisation who follow Salafi practices, seriously challenges assumptions that Salafism is the harbinger of a global Islam lacking any local characteristics.

They may maintain links to institutions and donors in Saudi Arabia, from where the movement arose during the 1960-70s. Yet, Wahdah Islamiyah engages with Indonesian culture and socio-political developments in a way that questions the predominance of the global over local understanding of Islamic belonging.

On 17 July, Wahdah Islamiyah opened its third Muktamar (Islamic conference) at Jakarta’s Istiqlal mosque with a Tabligh Akbar (great teaching session). The event was attended by several thousand and marked the start of three days of consultations in which speeches were given by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Syaifuddin and the Commander of Indonesian Armed Forces, General Gatot Nurmantyo.

The event underlines a fundamental shift not just in Indonesian Salafi activism, but also attests to the dynamic relationships being forged between conservative Islamic organisations and the state.

Modest roots
With branches in every province and over 174 schools from pre-school to university level, Wahdah Islamiyah has become an important social organisation within contemporary Indonesia. Indeed, they see themselves as a nationally orientated Islamic movement, attempting to follow in the footsteps of other religious organisations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama.

Yet, their roots are relatively unassuming. It was founded in 1988 by students at Makassar’s Hasanuddin University who severed their links with Muhammadiyah due to its controversial (and forced) adoption of Pancasila as its founding principle under pressure from then-president Suharto. They adopted the name of their former teacher, Faithul Mu’in, and created a religious foundation through which to proselytise among university and high school students.

Despite initially being influenced by the ideas of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, several of its founding members received scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia and, upon their return in 1992, they re-orientated the Islamic doctrine of the group to the tenets of Salafism.

The Faithul Mu’in foundation kept its contact with the state and other organisations to a minimum. However, this changed with the resignation of Suharto, as several of the group’s members became active in calls for Sharia law in South Sulawesi. Rebranding itself as Wahdah Islamiyah, the group restructured itself into a community organisation in 2002 so as to be able to expand across the archipelagic nation. As one activist of the movement noted, they wished to become a ‘national asset’.

Yet, until recently Wahdah Islamiyah often struggled to define itself outside of either the confines of Salafi practices or the geographical spaces of South Sulawesi and the university campuses of Indonesia’s bigger cities. Those who are not in immediate contact with the group have criticised them for being involved in violence, political and hostile to local forms of Islamic practice. Most recently, in January, MetroTV listed the group as a terrorist organisation — causing considerable outcry from members.

Continued suspicion and accusations of being either ‘foreign’ to Indonesia or linked to violence has clearly worried the organisations elite, and so it is perhaps timely that Wahdah Islamiyah held its  Third Muktamar in Jakarta last week under the theme of ‘Wasathiyah’.

The concept of Wasathiyah, according to Wahdah Islamiyah, derives from the Qur’an and is meant to denote a middle or moderate Islam. It has become the cornerstone of the group’s 15-year plan and intends to guide its relations with the state and among its own members.

As Wahdah Islamiyah has grown it has been subject to internal schisms and ruptures over how one should balance a ‘pure’ religious methodology with the daily concerns of Indonesian reality. Activists range from more ‘puritan’ elements to those in favour of engaging with other religious communities including non-Muslims. Talk of Wasathiyah, which is religiously vague, allows the group’s elite to ferment relationships with political elites while serving notice against more fringe elements within Wahdah Islamiyah.

As with Nahdlatul Ulama’s Islam Nusantara and Muhammadiyah’s Indonesia berkemajuan, the use of Wasathiyah denotes a particular understanding of national identity and Islam. Its footing is clearly based on a very Indonesian sense of being. The current head of Wahdah Islamiyah, Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin, explained that by ‘middle’, Wasathiyah was neither ‘extreme left’, by which he meant liberalism and communism or ‘extreme right’, which denotes the Islamic State and Jamaah Islamiyah.

The group has also defined Wasathiyah as a principle that assists in defending the unity of the Indonesian Republic against foreign agents. As one senior supporter noted, it also upholds Pancasila – the very ideology that led them to separate from Muhammadiyah in the first place.

A further notable point is that, through Wasathiyah, Wahdah Islamiyah has expressed its support for ‘middle-road’ democracy, which they see as something between the authoritarianism of the New Order and ‘chaos’ of the reformasi period. This diverges from previous positions within the organisation that denounced democracy as a man-made entity that contravened the principles of Islamic governance.

An Indonesian Salafi method?
The use of Wasathiyah gives ideological affirmation to the increasing Indonesian character of Wahdah Islamiyah. No surprise then that recently leaders have started to wear batik and songkok rather than jalabiyaa (long white robes) associated with most Salafi communities.

Among women, the use of colourful cadar (full veils) are increasingly recommended to decrease accusations that women members, who used to wear black cadar, are un-Indonesian. Members also work with government and interfaith institutions, and the organisation’s leader, Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin, even serves at a secretary general of the Indonesian Council for Ulama.

This does not imply that Wahdah Islamiyah has severed relations with Saudi Arabian educational institutes, or that they have come to accept Islamic minorities, such as the Shi’a and Ahmadiyah. They worryingly continue to refer to these latter groups as foreign and ‘deviant.’

However, the growth of Wahdah Islamiyah nonetheless provides evidence as to the expansion and contextualisation of Salafi doctrine within Indonesia.

Rather than promoting a foreign understanding of religious belonging, they see themselves as an integral part of contemporary Indonesia – promoting a religious identity that intends to provide very real solutions to Indonesian social and political problems.

Chris Chaplin is a sociologist and researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KITLV).