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Leader of Indonesia's Largest Muslim Group Calls for Secular Nation

K.H. Said Aqil Siradj, right, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in the world, speaks at an interfaith dialogue in Surabaya, May 18, 2017. (P. Riski/VOA)

Weeks after Jakarta elected a governor whose campaign called for Islam to dominate politics and society, the leader of Indonesia's — and the world's — largest Islamic organization has appealed for strengthening secular values.

The remarkable request went out to hundreds of people representing Indonesia's ethnic and religious diversity, who attended an interfaith dialog held by the Alliance of Arek Suroboyo on Thursday in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city after Jakarta.

K.H. Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, demanded a return to Indonesia's founding principle, now on the official seal — "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," or "Unity in Diversity" — and maintaining the nation's philosophical roots, codified in the Pancasila, a governing document, and the 1945 Constitution. Other religious and community leaders echoed his remarks.

That Said Aqil Siradj attended the gathering was newsworthy even before he spoke in favor of secularism.

Secular values

The gathering convened with the stated goal of strengthening support for the secular values of nationalism and patriotism, and Said Aqil Siradj's remarks countered the growing movement to transform Indonesia into a nation ruled by Sharia, or Islamic law.

His organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, was founded in 1926 in Surabaya to counter the rise of Wahhabism, the puritanical Islam favored by Saudi Arabia. Nahdlatul Ulama has more than 40 million members.

Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has been using education to quietly spread its form of Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

The impact of that effort may have played a role in the religious tensions surrounding the Jakarta governor election, won on April 19 by Anies Baswedan, who turned to Islamic hard-liners for support. His opponent, incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian better known by his nickname, Ahok, was accused of blasphemy for reciting a verse from the Quran.

After a trial that ran during the campaign, he was sentenced earlier this month to two years in prison.

K.H. Said Aqil Siradj and others pray together for the Indonesian nation at an interfaith dialog held by the Alliance of Arek Suroboyoin in Surabaya, May 18, 2017. (P. Riski/VOA)
K.H. Said Aqil Siradj and others pray together for the Indonesian nation at an interfaith dialog held by the Alliance of Arek Suroboyoin in Surabaya, May 18, 2017. (P. Riski/VOA)

According to Said Aqil Siradj, radical rhetoric spreads through sermons delivered during Friday prayers.

"These sermons are supposed to remind worshippers to be more devoted, to have moral values, to be more pious," he said. "They should not be verbal abuse. How dare they! If they want to badmouth other faiths, do it outside the sermon. If they do this during a Friday sermon, then the Friday prayer is not acceptable."

Indonesia is a nation of more than 17,000 islands, at least 300 ethnic groups and about 740 languages and dialects. And while about 88 percent of the Indonesia's 260.6 million people are Muslim, the government recognizes five other official religious traditions — Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Against change to government

Those favoring political Islam and the implementation of Sharia "are trying to eliminate everything related to the noble values of our archipelago and ancestry," said Sidharta Adhumulya, a Taoist leader, who exhorted the public to rise up against any attempt to change the government. "So do not let the Javanese sungkem [a way of honoring an elder by kissing his hand from a kneeling position] or the tradition of wearing a konde [a Javanese bun-like hairstyle] become haram," or forbidden under Sharia.

"Indonesia's independence came about because all tribes, all religions, fought for it," said Tofan Hidayat of the Chinese-Indonesian Society of East Java, referring to the overthrow of Dutch colonial rule after World War II.

Said Aqil Siradj expressed hope that the Indonesian people would return to the Constitution and embrace "Unity in Diversity" and the Pancasila, which sets forth five "inseparable and interrelated principles: a belief in the one and only God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives, and social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia."

"Let's return to the principle we agreed on, the Pancasila," he said. "If each person only fights for his own ideology, this is what happens — chaos. The Pancasila already contains Islamic values, if you're a Muslim. The belief in God, brotherhood, justice, nationalism and the principle of discourse, these are all the principles of Islam. What is the problem for Muslims?"

Nadia Madjid contributed to this report, which originated on VOA's Indonesia service.