Trenchant reaction to perceived threats has been a recurring theme in the history of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. Two threats in particular stand out: Islamic modernism and Communism. NU was formed in 1926 to protect traditional Islam from encroachment by rapidly spreading Islamic modernism and the organization remains a strident opponent of what it sees as puritanical, ‘Arabised’ forms of Islam from the Middle East. Even more visceral has been NU’s response to communism. Violent conflict occurred between NU and communists in the late 1940s, and in 1965-66 NU played a greater role than any other civil society organisation in the mass killing of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and sympathizers.
In the last decade, anti-communist sentiment has been resurgent in NU, somewhat paradoxically for an organization that casts itself as ‘moderate’ and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. A best-selling book in NU circles at present is The NU-PKI Conflict, 1948-1965, and the organization’s publications and social media pages abound with accounts of communist revival. Some of the more militant sections of NU link perceived rising communism to growing Islamic modernism. This paper will examine contemporary NU discourses on communism and consider how they have been instrumentalized to serve the organization’s political and religious agendas. It will argue that new constructions of perceived communist-modernist threat are part of a broader traditionalist Muslim and secular nationalist effort to redefine and narrow the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ public expression and associational activity.