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

Street politics and the courts

“The ulema have to be venerable, deliver lectures and (spread) religious knowledge,” NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj has said. “How can it be that someone preaches incitement every day? That’s not (worthy of) ulema.” Siradj, the leader of the world’s largest independent Islamic organization, was talking about the leadership of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and in particular its firebrand founder, Rizieq Shihab. The FPI is one of the organizations that use fatwas issued by the MUI to support its agenda of hard-line Islamic moralism.

Much to the dismay of figures like Siradj, Shihab and his fellow firebrands have in recent years managed to dominate the public debate on Islam in Indonesia, due to their outspoken opinions, growing online presence and ability to mobilize street protesters. The National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), which is not organizationally affiliated with the MUI, is one recent example of the way in which hard-line groups use the body’s fatwas. The GNPF-MUI, led by the popular cleric and MUI Advisory Council deputy secretary Bachtiar Nasir, was instrumental in organizing large street rallies last year calling for the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, over allegedly blasphemous comments he made in late September, and for which he was sentenced to two years in jail on May 9. Using an edict – called a “religious advisory” and not a fatwa – issued by the MUI on Oct. 11, 2016, the GNPF-MUI, including the FPI, presented itself as the MUI’s voice in the street during a series of rallies that attracted hundreds of thousands of people in Jakarta and other cities and made global headlines. The MUI statement declared Basuki guilty of insulting the Koran, the ulema and the ummah, and recommended he be prosecuted.

Melissa Crouch, an expert on Indonesian legal issues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, has noted that cases of alleged blasphemy are often reported to the police by religious leaders, including those from the MUI. “One of the key pieces of ‘evidence’ that organizations like MUI offer to police is a fatwa that declares a group and its teaching deviant,” she told the Indonesia at Melbourne website last year. “Although the fatwa of MUI are not legally binding, such decisions appear to have significant persuasive value in court.” She added: “For example, MUI issued a fatwa against Lia Eden, the leader of a small sect, and the fatwa was produced in court as evidence that she had blasphemed Islam. The reliance on fatwa by the prosecution as evidence in court is difficult for judges to deny without being perceived as questioning the credibility of the Islamic leaders or organization that issued the fatwa.” Sure enough, prosecutors decided to use the MUI’s Oct. 11 blasphemy edict in their case against Basuki, even though they later opted for a lesser charge of hate speech. The judges in the case nevertheless found the governor guilty of blasphemy, and MUI’s deputy chairman, Zainut Tauhid Sa’adi, later told local media that the verdict proved the legitimacy of the edict.

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