Research has shown these two organisations have since the 1920s helped maintain the nation’s political stability and supported the country’s democracy. They have created peace while promoting moderate Islam.
But my ongoing research indicates their influence is dwindling, especially in urban settings.
My soon-to-be-published research using ethnographic methodology has identified at least two reasons behind the decreasing popularity of NU and Muhammadiyah among Muslim people living in cities.
1. They no longer cater to the needs of urban Muslims
Indonesia’s Muslim socio-economic demography has shifted with the growth of the country’s middle class in urban areas. The new Muslim middle class has different interests from what NU and Muhammadiyah have been addressing throughout their existence.
NU and Muhammadiyah’s movements are centred on political struggles. The authoritarian Suharto regime repressed Islamic expression. Both established Islamic organisations fought for democracy, religious moderation, tolerance and pluralism and their roles have strengthened since the fall of Suharto’s regime in the late 1990s.
Today, urban Muslim communities are less interested in political struggles. They see issues that they have to deal with every day as more pressing. Their concerns include limited access to education and health services and other social problems.
Thus, they are engaged with diverse social programs to tackle these problems, such as offering Islamic school networks in many cities.
These networks include Jaringan Sekolah Islam Terpadu (the Integrated Islamic School Network). It promotes home-schooling and supports Islamic boarding schools through fundraising and distributing rice.
Urban Muslim communities also engage in fundraising for disasters and other humanitarian issues such as those carried out by Kajian Musawarah and Pemuda Hijrah. They are also involved in philanthropic institutions like Dompet Dhuafa and Aksi Cepat Tanggap (ACT)
These urban Muslims have repented of practising unIslamic values, then attempted to learn Islam through forums facilitated by communities and foundations outside the NU or Muhammadiyah networks.
They attend regular communal recitations where themes related to Islamic sharia are discussed. Preachers involved in this ritual are mostly not affiliated with Muhammadiyah or NU. But they have millions of followers on social media platforms, especially YouTube and Instagram.
For some Muslims living in cities, their need is simply to attend regular sermons that are easy to understand. The goal of Muhammadiyah and NU for this kind of ritual is more complex. They tend to invite the audience to think critically and reflectively.
Another reason is the particular needs of Muslim urbanites in tackling everyday life challenges.
Urban Muslim communities carefully apply cultural strategies to offer Islamic values to deal with life problems. These include activities like facilitating Islamic matchmaking for the younger generation, and inviting hobby-based communities such as bikers, street football players, musicians and skateboarders to live a life according to Islamic sharia.
To borrow a concept from sociologist Celia Lury, this is a culture based on the consumption of things. These new urban Muslim communities boldly express a new Islamic identity in which they are required to consume anything labelled as Islam. This includes clothing, films, music, education and banking services, positioning them as a new potential target market.
2. They have close affiliations with politicians
When former NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, served as the fourth president of Indonesia, NU became the face of partisan politics. It has since been linked to the country’s political forces to this day.
Australian scholar Greg Fealy notes that NU enjoys a close relationship with the current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, with good access to circles of power. In a speech during NU’s 96th anniversary in January, the president offered NU leaders access to handle mining and agricultural concessions in Indonesia because Jokowi believes NU has qualified human resources.
All this will help NU expand services to new and current members.
Meanwhile, Muhammadiyah appears timid in the face of power, as shown by its lack of criticism of government policies.
The NU and Muhammadiyah’s close-to-power image has turned urban Muslims to other communities. As a result, the gap between urban Muslims and these two organisations has widened.
To close the gap, both Muhammadiyah and NU need to be dynamic in responding to the needs of urban Muslim communities. They must offer more down-to-earth programs. They must also try to engage with these communities using digital technologies, considering most of them are tech-savvy.
With these strategies, NU and Muhammadiyah can still promote their moderate approach to make all Muslims feel at home in heterogeneous Indonesia.