Indonesia’s Sunni Islamic social welfare organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which calls itself the largest Muslim group in the world with a claimed membership of 50 million, is using its martial arts division to take aim at a new foe, the Islamic State.
The group, widely considered the country’s leading moderate Muslim organization, has worn many hats since its founding in 1926: it was once a political party, it is still a charity that has built hundreds of schools and hospitals, and it is an eminent advocate for Indonesia’s pluralistic, tolerant Islam Nusantara, or “Islam of the archipelago,” around the world.
But one of NU’s lesser-known wings is Pagar Nusa, a martial arts division that initially arose to protect NU’s Islamic boarding schools in pre-independence Indonesia. Although Pagar Nusa “warriors” have been present through Indonesia’s independence struggle and democratic Reformation. One of its most recent targets is the international extremism of the so-called Islamic State.
“IS has spread threats against Indonesian groups like the police and armed forces, and specifically threatened NU,” Pagar Nusa chairman Nabil Haroen told VOA.
In response, Pagar Nusa is stepping up its activities across Indonesia, where it maintains a presence across most major provinces, including Java, Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and Papua. It is also holding a special training for constituent warriors in Pekalongan, Central Java later this month.
Pagar Nusa claims three million followers, and its training combines “physical strength, martial arts, and spiritual intelligence,” according to Nabil. Its goal is not to engage in armed combat — in fact, violence is something of a last resort — but to train a corps of Indonesian Muslims who can defend their traditions against ongoing and evolving threats.
“Basically Pagar Nusa, and by extension, Nahdlatul Ulama, uses persuasion,” said Nabil. “We use cultural approaches and ideological campaigns [against extremists]. If we can invite extremists back to moderate Islam, then we move forward with da’wah, or preaching.”
“The violent approach is the last resort of a knight, or a swordsman. We seek to conquer the enemy before the fight occurs.” But, he went on, “under any circumstances, Pagar Nusa is always ready.”
In Pagar Nusa programs across Indonesia, there are daily, weekly, and biweekly physical drills for members, depending on the local teacher and regimen, said Nabil. But the mandatory spiritual exercise component ideally takes place every single night, he said.
If it seems strange, at first glance, that a social welfare group like NU also has a martial arts club, but it is actually in step with recent Indonesian history.
In modern Indonesia, major political parties have been historically linked with their own paramilitary arms. NU’s youth wing, Ansor, has a “paramilitary” arm called Banser that has long helped the National Awakening Party, especially on Java island.
Extremism remains attractive
In light of the ongoing threat posed by the Islamic State, which has inspired a slow drip of actual and attempted terrorist attacks in Indonesia over the last three years, Nabil said Pagar Nusa is educating its members about IS ideology and recognizing warning signs among would-be extremist youth. Its work can be seen as a complement to other NU counter-extremism efforts, particularly in the digital sphere.
Savic Ali, director of NU Online, said his group’s counter-extremism work “is mainly in the education, media and social monitoring sectors.” “NU, as a nationalist-religious organization, certainly will oppose and resist IS because it can destroy the Indonesian nation-state,” he told VOA.
Pagar Nusa’s efforts could also be useful in a general sense because martial arts appeal to young people, said extremism analyst Nava Nuraniyah, of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict.
“Many surveys have identified youth as the most vulnerable target of extremist recruitment,” she told VOA. “Some teenagers… are attracted by the ‘cool' image of an IS fighter: heroes of Islam, holding guns, and all that. While this program’s effectiveness as PVE (prevention of violent extremism) is yet to be tested, Islamic martial arts clubs like Pagar Nusa could at least provide an alternative to these teenagers to channel their energy in a more positive way.”
Beyond that, as hinted at by Savic, it can help with a mainstay of NU programming: nationalism. One of the phrases taught in NU schools, according to Nuraniyah, is hubbul wathon minal iman, or “loving one’s homeland is part of faith.” This brand of high-stakes nationalism, she said, “might add a sense of heroism which appeals to the youth.”