Indonesia: Fatwas by clerics spur debate on Islam

Ever since Indonesia's highest Islamic authority, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued 11 'fatwas' or edicts against liberal Islam, a fierce debate has begun raging in the world's most populous Muslim nation on what constitutes an Islamic society.
Though Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, in these once Hindu and Buddhist societies the practice of Islam is coloured by the liberalism of the older faiths. Many urban middle class Indonesians call their liberal interpretation of Islam 'secular'.
But, MUI's fatwas have thrown a direct challenge to both the government and to liberal Muslims in this country of 200 million people of which 88 percent follow the Islamic faith while eight percent is Christian and three percent, Hindu or Buddhist.

The eleven edicts, issued late July includes one which states that Islamic interpretations based on liberalism, secularism and pluralism ''contradict Islamic teachings''.

Also banned are inter-faith prayers performed with people of other religions and the intonation of 'amen' to prayers that are led by a non-Muslim which is deemed to be 'haram' (forbidden under Islamic law) as also are interfaith marriages.

Analysts say that MUI's stance is a reaction to the aggressive proselytising by foreign-funded Christian evangelical sects in the country in recent years and the onslaught of globalised western culture coming in through media channels and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

''Challenges for the Muslims do not come from Christian evangelism only, but also others, such as the proliferation of pornography, gambling, the spread of religious liberalism, pluralism and secularism,'' argues Mustofa Kamil Ridwan a researcher at the Islamic think-tank, the Habibie Center in Jakarta.

In an IPS interview Ridwan said suspicions were being created by the activities of some western-funded NGOs that were ''using Islam as their basis but with questionable implementation that is contradictory to the true teachings of Islam --and sometimes too radical.''

One such NGO is the Jaringan Islam Liberal (Liberal Islamic Network) an organisation that is located within Institut Studi Arus Informasi (Center for Studies on Information Flows) and plays an important role in spreading ideas on democratic reformation in Indonesia.

Like other NGOs, funded by Western donors, this one too is in the forefront of campaigns against attempts by the government to enact laws to restrict the spread of pornography, gambling and night clubs.

''Most progressive Muslim thinkers would not be very happy to be portrayed as liberals,'' Ade Armando, a member of the Association of Indonesian Moslem Scholars, opined.

''I think the term reformist will be more appropriate to refer to progressive groups that try to reinterpret the Islamic teaching in a more contextual approach, that unfortunately challenges the traditional Islamic teachings by the ulamas (clerics),'' Armando said.

Ridwan explained that from the ''conservative point of view liberalism is really a challenge'' because of the fear that ''liberalism will make their children and the Muslim community leave Islamic values they uphold highly''.

MUI has asked non-Muslims not to be upset with the July edicts as they are only aimed at Muslims, and are not the law of the land.

But MUI is gearing up to promote its edicts in regions, where people are more religious, conservative and impoverished. It is these poor communities that have become the target of Christian evangelical groups for proselytising and some ulemas have reacted by including the MUI edicts in their sermons.

Armando argues that it is wrong to portray those who support the ulemas as radicals who believe in using violence to achieve their aims. ''They believe it is their sacred duty to create a new Indonesia as a respectable Islamic country,'' he explained.

''Many (MUI) groups are working in the institution-building level. They introduce alternative models of schools - modern Islamic schools which differs from the madrasas - new Islamic banking system, special novels for Islamic youth, and they also publish magazines, new media such as CD, CD-ROM, VCD - that teaches Islamic values,'' Armando said.

Yet, Hasyim Muzadi, the chairman of Nahdhatul Ulama (NU), which has around 40 million members and is considered the world's largest Muslim organisation, has warned the MUI that its edicts may have a detrimental impact of the development of a civil society in Indonesia.

Muzadi has asked the ulemas to define precisely what they mean by interfaith relations and nationhood, as ''we live in a diverse society and this country is not an Islamic state''.

Muslim scholar Ahmad Syafii Maarif, a former chairman of Indonesia's second biggest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah also warned that the edicts may encourage radical groups to take the law into their own hands.

''Although fatwas are not binding, radical groups who have a thirst for power will make use of them for their own interests. It is as if they have been given religious justification,'' he was quoted by the Jakarta Post as saying.

But, Ridwan argues that the ''edict functions as a provision for the Ummah (Muslim community) to decide what they would do'' and the Ummah itself has the ''the last say for themselves''.

Thus, the MUI's fatwas play a very important role in the Ummah's decision making process. ''With the fatwa the Ummah feel they have strong hands and are more certain of overcoming the challenges in the midst of very uncertain situation and full of upheaval,'' he told IPS.

Armando blamed the regimes of Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid (a liberal Islamic thinker) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (a female) for allowing reformists within the Muslim community in Indonesia to gain in popularity.

''Very progressive books were being published in these past several years and progressive radio talkshows were launched. And in these movements, the forbidden organisations (during the Suharto era) dared to also openly surface,'' he noted. ''These developments, I believe, provoked reactions from the conservative groups. And now, they see SBY (President Yudoyuano) as a new president that they can perceive of as an ally or godfather,'' said Armando.

''They (conservatives) also see these movements as being provoked by the activities of (Christian) evangelists,'' he said.

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne