Enjoining right, forbidding wrong: The MUI and Indonesian Islam
July-September 2017
By: Bastiaan Scherpen

Serving the ummah

Scholars and activists have identified the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14), especially the year 2005, as a turning point in the history of the MUI. Yudhoyono paid heed to conservative religious groups and figures in exchange for their support, resulting in a decade of relative social stability marked by sustained and sometimes deadly attacks on religious minorities. As Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, has argued, Yudhoyono practically gave the country’s religious hard-liners free rein after opening the 2005 MUI congress and announcing that he intended to “take strict measures against deviant beliefs.”

After deciding during its 2000 National Congress to become a guide and servant of the ummah, and focus on the reform and revival of Islam (islah and tajdid) and enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong (amar ma’ruf nahi munkar), the MUI in 2005 took aim directly at progressive voices with a controversial fatwa that declared pluralism, liberalism and secularism as haram, or forbidden in Islam. That same year, the MUI declared the Ahmadiyah sect deviant and exhorted the national government to ban the spread of its teachings. The Yudhoyono administration did so in 2008, and in the years that followed more than 100 Ahmadiyah mosques were shuttered, while a mob attack in Banten Province in 2011 on followers of the sect left three dead. The MUI’s fatwas are not legally binding, yet they can strongly influence policy and the way law enforcers handle local conflicts. In some cases, even senior police officers believe a fatwa is all they need to take action against groups that communities consider – or are made to believe are – deviant. 

Indonesia’s National Police chief, Gen. Tito Karnavian, reiterated late last year that the MUI’s fatwas are not law, and the respected former Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud MD has gone on the record saying fatwas are religious opinions, nothing more and nothing less. “Fatwas are good because they guide the ummah,” Mahfud was quoted as saying at a seminar in January. “But do they have to be followed? Of course not.” But regardless of such statements of fact, in a country where the vast majority of the population identifies themselves as Muslim and where unquestioning respect for authority remains a hallmark of large segments of the education system, fatwas issued by the MUI do carry a lot of weight. MUI fatwa Number 57/2014 on lesbianism, gays, sodomy and abuse, which calls for caning and the death penalty for such “offenses,” has been invoked by opponents of the LGBT movement, for instance. The MUI has also been asked to testify at the Constitutional Court in the controversial case filed by the Family Love Alliance to revise Indonesia’s criminal code so that all sexual relationships outside of marriage are outlawed, a move that is supported by the child protection commission.      

While it can be argued that the MUI cannot be held responsible for the ways in which other people interpret its decisions, and that the organization does, to a considerable extent, channel concerns on particular topics that are shared by a sizeable section of the population, the MUI has become an important cog in a machine pushing a rigid overall understanding of Islam that does not appear to be shared by the majority of Indonesian Muslims. But that is not the only criticism the organization is facing.

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