New leader of ulema council must end sectarianism

The recent national meeting of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) elected senior cleric Ma’ruf Amin as its chairman for the next five years, succeeding Din Syamsuddin, shortly after Ma’ruf was elected supreme leader or rais aam of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).  The major theme of the MUI meeting was “moderate Islam” (Islam Wasathi). With these two roles, Ma’ruf will be one of the most responsible figures in determining where Indonesian religious life will be heading.

The good news is that the narrative of an Indonesian Islam promoting religious tolerance and moderatism is now on the rise. After the NU’s “Islam Nusantara” and Muhammadiyah’s “progressive Islam”, the major themes of their respective congresses last month, the MUI was willing to use the term “moderate Islam”, which means, as Din said, “rejecting all forms of radicalism”.

The term clearly negates the idea that there is only one Islam, as advocated by some Muslims who rejected the notion of Islam Nusantara. The term implies that Islam has many interpretations, whether moderate, progressive, reformist, radical, or even liberal. Regardless of the validity of ascribing such terms to the word “Islam”, recognition of its diversity is crucial, particularly to oppose those sticking to a strict definition and simplistic understanding of the religion.

As for the MUI, which kind of moderate Islam is it claiming to be, as representative of almost all Indonesian Muslim organizations? The MUI has often been criticized for constituting conservative trends and for issuing edicts that were used as justification by Muslims to discriminate against groups like the Ahmadis and Shiites. 

While the Ahmadis have been declared deviant or even kafir, some branches of the MUI issued an edict stating that Shiites are heretic. The MUI’s branch in East Java has long persuaded the MUI’s national center to issue a specific edict representing all the MUI’s branches declaring that Shiites are heretic.

Such developments should be among the priorities of the new MUI under Ma’ruf, given the increasingly heated sectarianism in the last decade within Islam itself, and this will be the touchstone for the new MUI to prove its commitment to moderation, at least not to further fuel sectarianism. Or, if necessary, the new MUI should dismiss or revoke some of its sectarian edicts or publications. 

Earlier, some MUI published a book concerning the deviance of Shiites, written in the name of MUI, and many of the books were freely distributed. This is a problem, as many people perceive the MUI as representing all Indonesian Muslim organizations, while this is not the case. Ma’ruf said just hours after his election that, “We will not tolerate any persecution [of minority religious groups in Indonesia]; the new MUI will try its best to prohibit and even to prevent [any form of persecution].” This statement is surprising, coming from Ma’ruf, whose views are deemed by many as conservative especially as the former head of the MUI edict division. Hopefully this statement will become true.

Therefore the MUI under his leadership should revise or repeal its sectarian edicts. If this option is too hard given likely political resistance from its members and some Muslim organizations, touching the boundaries of Sunni “orthodoxy” that the MUI seeks to maintain, the second option is to issue an edict condemning any acts of discrimination against those considered deviant.

The latter option is extremely important for two reasons. First, the MUI tends to shun responsibility regarding persecutions against those considered deviant, whose perpetrators cite relevant MUI’s edicts as justification. In 2012, Ma’ruf wrote an article in a national newspaper concerning the East Java MUI’s edict against Shiites and said the fatwa functions as a declarative explanation for Muslims to be aware of the deviance of Shia. Sadly, there was no commentary on the persecution that was partly caused by the fatwa. 

Second, the MUI must focus on actions rather than beliefs. Shiites and Ahmadis may not share the exact same beliefs on certain theological issues and most ordinary Muslims do not really know the details of Islamic theology, let alone sectarian divides within Islam. 

The discriminatory actions manifested in public policy and civil violence should be among the MUI’s primary concerns. Expelling innocent people from their homes, as experienced by Shiites and Ahmadis in various areas, is against the very teaching of Islam and thus is much more deviant than the Shiite belief that the successor of the Prophet Muhammad must have been his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib — which is actually a legitimate opinion within Islam.

Now is the moment for the MUI to review its fatwa and its proper role in Indonesian religious life. Unlike the two largest Indonesian Muslim organizations, NU and Muhammadiyah, the MUI is not a mass organization. 

Nor is it a state institution, although its funds come partly from the state. Its legitimacy of issuing a fatwa can actually be challenged by the NU and Muhammadiyah. A fatwa is no more than a legal opinion and it is not binding unless for those voluntarily conceding to the authority of the MUI. The main problem is when its fatwa are abused to justify criminal acts. Maybe the MUI should issue a specific fatwa concerning the use of its fatwa. Yes, a fatwa about fatwa!

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 18/09/2015

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