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

Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization, argued in an op-ed article published in Kompas newspaper in February that the MUI should be seen as an example of state corporatism. Drawing on the work of American political scientist Philippe Schmitter, Hendardi sees the MUI as a nonstate organization that nonetheless influences all of society because its activities are seen as matters of state. Strictly speaking, MUI fatwas only apply to Muslims who choose to accept them, said the activist, but through state recognition – and even formal legalization in some cases – MUI decisions are seen as binding for all Muslims, and even non-Muslims in cases such as Basuki, although Hendardi did not specifically mention the former governor.

Through Law Number 21/2008 on Shariah Banking or Law Number 33/2014 on Halal Products, for instance, the organization is given strategic influence befitting a state body. In short, the MUI is allowed to play an important role in the formalization of Islam in Indonesia, while it cannot be subjected to the checks and balances that apply to actual state bodies, such as transparent leadership selection and financial accountability. Hendardi said he recognizes that the MUI, as a religious body, has the freedom to express itself, and that it cannot be held responsible for the way elements in society form a “superstructure that upholds MUI fatwas.” But he said he believes the government is to blame when, as part of policy making, it takes into consideration any MUI product that runs counter to the basic principles upon which the secular Indonesian state was founded. 

Not too late

Van Bruinessen said that with the Basuki blasphemy edict, which some have alleged was issued at the request of Yudhoyono, the MUI has allowed itself to be dragged into a political battle. By doing so, he said, it has gone much further than NU and Muhammadiyah, which largely steered clear of the large anti-Basuki rallies in Jakarta and did not denounce leadership by non-Muslims. “The big difference (with the New Order) is that the MUI is now an extension of the street activists who use violence to implement MUI fatwas,” says van Bruinessen. “Some of the people speaking on behalf of the MUI seem to have no idea about the formal status of their organization within Indonesia’s judiciary system, and they think the police’s job is to implement the MUI’s fatwas.”

According to van Bruinessen, the debate about the role of Islam in public life in Indonesia is barely discursive: “It is being fought in the street, which seriously undermines the rule of law.” He added: “The MUI … is caught in a process of self-radicalization and has become an important political player, which is coupled with great financial and political interests and the involvement of other political players. I agree with Gus Mus that the MUI needs to be placed under the supervision of the government and that the criteria for recruitment and membership need to be clear and transparent. The MUI shouldn’t ally itself with a specific political faction but should stand above all parties. This process is not irreversible,” he said, “but the reluctance of the government to take a clear stand doesn’t make things easier. It’s a bit like the problem we have in Europe and the US with xenophobic populists.”

Please login to leave a comment