March 23, 2010 
Anita Rachman

Islamic scholars from 50 countries are in Makassar to attend the 32nd congress 
of the NU. (Antara Photo/Yusran Uccang)

Congress to Shape Future of Indonesia's Largest Muslim Organization

Makassar. The pervasive thick cloud of clove cigarette smoke, the motley 
collection of sarongs and the faces of candidates staring back from an 
abundance of campaign banners all herald the start of Nahdlatul Ulama's 
national congress here today. 

The country's largest Muslim organization - comprising some 40 million members 
and supporters - has descended on the South Sulawesi capital to hold its 32nd 
congress, with the most important order of business being the election of a new 
chairman who will lead NU for the next five years. 

More than 4,500 delegates from across the country are taking part in the 
congress at the Haji Sudiang Lodge, where men and women have been separated 
into different dorms. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is scheduled to 
officially open the proceedings today. 

Hafidz Usman, head of the NU congress committee, said the gathering, which 
closes on Sunday, would discuss a variety of topics, including how the group 
views wiretapping and the issue of online marriages. 

"People from many provinces have joined us here, from Papua, Manado, Ternate, 
West and Central Kalimantan, and of course our fellows from Java have arrived 
as well," Hafidz said on Monday. 

There have been growing calls from within the organization for it to end its 
involvement in politics and focus on its original mission: to provide 
grassroots spiritual, educational and social guidance to Muslims across the 

Hafidz said this year's congress would be the first without the late 
Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, who had led NU for 15 years before becoming the 
country's fourth president. 

"It was at the 1984 congress in Situbondo, East Java, when Gus Dur turned NU 
from a political force to a religious organization again," he said. "But look 
at NU now - many people want to politicize it, use it. I hope this will not 
happen anymore." 

But any move away from politics, where obedience to Muslim clerics and scholars 
is de rigueur, will depend on the next leader. 

Unlike past congresses, the battle for the NU chairmanship will be fierce this 
year, Hafidz said, pointing to the many colorful campaign banners plastered 
around the lodge. 

Running for the coveted position are clerics, religious scholars and career 
politicians. They include senior NU executives Sholahuddin Wahid, Masdar F 
Mas'udi, Ahmad Bagja and Said Agil Siradj; former Golkar Party legislator 
Slamet Effendy Yusuf; National Awakening Party (PKB) lawmaker Ali Maschan 
Moesa; and liberal Muslim intellectual Ulil Abshar Abdallah. 

Ulil said the incumbent chairman, Hasyim Muzadi, had not expressed interest in 
running for a third term, but was looking to head up the organization's 
advisory board. 

M Luthfi Abdul Hadi, a cleric from Malang, East Java, said that as at past 
congresses, smoking was an inescapable part of the proceedings. "I've quit 
smoking, but I understand why many still persist with the habit," he said. 
"It's because smoking somehow helps them think." 

"Our clerics, they are thinkers, they read many things - I think smoking helps 
them do that." 

Another congress trademark is the sarongs, the traditional dress of NU's mainly 
rural followers.

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