Evangelicals and Muslims: Not Brothers, But Best Friends

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Why the World Evangelical Alliance is working hand in hand with Nahdlatul Ulama in an ambitious global initiative to counter religious extremism.

Last November, when the General Assembly of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) took Sunday off for worship and relaxation near Jakarta, Indonesia, a group of top leaders did something different. We got in a van and traveled to the offices of an Indonesian Muslim youth organization.

There we spent several hours in stimulating conversation with a group of Muslim intellectuals. Afterwards, at dinner, we were joined by Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States.

Why would WEA leaders pay so much attention to a group of Indonesian Muslims? And why would our hosts and even a high government official be so interested in welcoming us? For two reasons.

First, both we and our Muslim counterparts are idealists. We share a vision of a world in which people are free to choose their religious belief without risking their lives.

And second, we think a high-level alliance between one of the world’s largest evangelical organizations and one of the world’s largest Muslim organizations can uniquely move humanity in that direction.

Not just any Muslims

Our conversation partners were not just any Muslims. The most prominent figure among our hosts was Yahya Cholil Staquf (Pak Yahya), who served 20 years ago as press secretary to Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. Pak Yahya is now the general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a 94-year-old Muslim organization that claims 90 million adherents worldwide.

NU formed as a reaction to the rising influence of Wahhabism, the more puritanical version of Islam that had come to dominate what is now Saudi Arabia. Many Indonesian Islamic leaders received training in Saudi territory, so Wahhabi repression and persecution of more broad-minded Muslims had a direct effect on them.

Over decades …

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