ON 3 JANUARY 1970, a young Muslim scholar stood before a large audience in Jakarta and delivered what would be the defining speech of his career. He observed that while Islam was developing rapidly in Indonesia, very few Muslims were attracted to Islamic politics. It was, he said pithily, a case of “Islam yes, Islamic party no!” His words were more than an observation about community attitudes; he was also endorsing the trend away from political Islam. For him, Islam’s future in Indonesia lay not in politics, but in cultural, intellectual and educational activity.
The speaker was Nurcholish Madjid and his address created a furore. To understand why his words aroused such a reaction, one must know something of Nurcholish himself and the challenge facing political Islam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nurcholish was, at that time, one of the brightest young stars in the firmament of Indonesian Islam. He was a gifted intellectual with natural leadership qualities. He had twice been elected chairman of the country’s largest Muslim student body, the Muslim Students Association (HMI), and a leading role in Islamic politics seemed inevitable. Indeed, he was paid the accolade of being known as the ‘Young Natsir’ (Natsir Muda), a reference to the former prime minister and chairman of the Masyumi Islamic Party, Mohammad Natsir, who was the most revered figure in modernist Islamic politics.