New Indonesian Film Seeks to Keep Radicalism at Bay

Zahara Tiba

A pale morning sun hangs over a temple complex somewhere in Java. A man washes his hands in preparation for prayer. A wayang puppet glides across a screen, someone studies the Quran, people kneel in unison for prayer.

Interrupting these images are scenes of shocking contrast: Islamic State (IS) fighters pointing guns at the heads of people kneeling in front of them, prisoners begging for their lives.

A new film by Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, with some 50 million members – challenges what it says is extremism seeping into Indonesia from outside with a meditation on the country’s own tolerant brand of Islam and multi-faith society.

In the film’s trailer, the voice of NU leader Mustofa Busri evokes the Wali Songo or “nine saints” who spread Islam in Indonesia in the 15th century, inviting viewers to reexamine their views on life.

“What is our concept of God? What is our concept of brotherhood?” his gentle, lecturing tone asks as the images of suffering and brutality flick by.


The documentary film “The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara” debuted at the 15th congress of the NU youth group Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, in Sleman, Yogyakarta, in late November.

“Through this film, we want to introduce Nusantara Islam to the world, Indonesia’s Islam,” Marsudi Syuhud, the secretary general of the NU Executive Board, told BenarNews.

Nusantara means archipelago in Bahasa Indonesia and is often used to refer to the country itself.

The film underlines the importance of living in harmony with others even when there are differences in values, Marsudi said.

“The Wali Songo mingled with the people here, assimilating Islamic teachings with the local culture. In Java for example, the Wali Songo preached using wayang, because that is the culture of the people here,” he told BenarNews.

The approach was made without violence, he said, and as a result Islam spread rapidly without bloodshed – enhancing but not obliterating existing local culture.

But these days there are those who do not accept the tolerance that mark Indonesian Islam, he said.

“They invite the spread of something supposedly Islamic … using force and violence, like ISIS,” he said, referring to the so-called Islamic State militant group.

The Indonesian government has been grappling since last year with a challenge posed by IS and its supporters recruiting young Indonesians for its jihadist cause via social media.

The authorities don’t have an exact number on how many Indonesians have sworn allegiance to the extremist group.

According to figures disseminated by the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) and other governmental agencies, the number of Indonesians who have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join IS ranges from 350 to 800, including about 60 who have been killed in combat in that region.

“This kind of thing does not make Islam big, good, modern and civilized. In fact it just ruins a country,” Marsudi said.


Signs of emerging radicalism and wahhabism in society are concerning, said Slamet Effendi Yusuf, former deputy head of the NU.

“So we want to convey an Islam that is moderate, tolerant. Nusantara Islam is a blessing for the world, an Islam that comes not to wipe out what is on earth, but to improve it,” Slamet told BenarNews.

NU itself, he went on to say, accepts that Indonesian society is plural, and will not accept concepts such as a religion-based state.

“The Republic of Indonesia is final. That is Nusantara Islam, which does not take extreme views on things. Transnational teachings, radicalism and extremism cannot be accepted,” he stressed.

He said international response to the 90-minute film has been positive.

“I just returned from a promotional trip to several countries. Many international clerics gave it an extraordinary welcome. This kind of viewpoint is needed when a small faction of Muslims adopts extreme views,” he said.

‘More massive effort needed’

NU officials say they will show the movie in conferences and are counting on social media to make it go “viral.”

“Looking forward to the full movie. I believe Indonesia can be a role model of Muslim[s] in the modern world,” one person commented on the trailer posted on YouTube.

“As an Indonesian Muslim, I’m proud of my country’s harmony and pluralism,” another viewer said.

Novriantoni Kahar, a lecturer at Paramadina University in Jakarta and commentator on Islamic issues, said the film is a good effort to repulse radical thinking.

“But a more massive effort is needed, something structured and systematic. It needs young people dedicated to producing content for an anti-ISIS campaign that is intelligent and creative,” he told BenarNews.

More mediums are needed, such as cartoons and satire, produced on a massive scale, to attract young people who might otherwise be interested by radical ideologies.

“For raising the awareness of NU youth, this film is pretty good. But to reach a wider audience, it is very lacking. It needs collaboration with other organizations, such as Muhammadiyah,” he said, referring to Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization.


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