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Strict Islamic Edicts Cause Concern in Indonesia

  • Nancy-Amelia Collins

Indonesia's highest Islamic authority has issued a series of controversial hard-line fatwas, or edicts, causing a rift with the nation's leading religious groups and raising concerns that intolerance is growing in this traditionally moderate Muslim nation.

The fatwas issued by the Indonesia Ulema Council, or MUI, during its national congress last month describe liberal interpretations of Islam, secularism, and religious pluralism as being against the teachings of Islam.

The 11 fatwas also ban interfaith marriage and prayers performed with people of other faiths. They renew a decades old ban against Ahmadiyah, a Muslim religious movement that started in India in the late 19th century and was brought to Indonesia in 1925.

The government funds the council and appoints its members, most of whom are conservatives. The MUI provides guidance to the world's largest Islamic population, but its edicts are not legally binding.

The recent fatwas have caused a rift between the MUI and the nation's moderate Islamic organizations, including the country's largest, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU.

Several leaders from the NU and the country's second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, are also on the Indonesian Ulema Council. However, they apparently were outnumbered when the fatwas were discussed.

NU Chairman Hasyim Muzadi says his organization does not support the fatwas.

"But of course as a society that lives among other religions, other ideas, of course we are not [in] sympathy and [do not] support this idea, this fatwa," he said.

The MUI's new hard-line stance may have its roots in Indonesia's maturing democracy. The council came into being during the iron-fisted rule of President Suharto, who governed for more than 30 years until his ouster in 1998. But during the Suharto years, the MUI, like other religious, ethnic or political groups, was severely restricted in its actions.

Since then, as Indonesia moved to full democracy, organizations such as the MUI have become more vocal and influential. The conservatives on the council may feel they now have the opportunity to take bolder positions.

But many Indonesians are cautious about the new edicts. Mr. Hasyim says the NU, like the vast majority of Indonesians, is against hard-line Islam and supports a secular society that respects all religions.

"We as [a] moderate movement, of course we are against the idea of radicalism, or extreme idea, and also against the terrorism," he said.

Terrorism is a significant concern in Indonesia, which has sizable Christian, Hindu and Buddhist communities. A militant Islamic group called Jemaah Islamiyah has been responsible for a series of bombings that have claimed more than two hundred lives over the past five years - most of attacks have been aimed at foreigners but Christian churches also have been targeted. JI., as it is called, has very little support among Indonesians, but it has been linked to other terrorist groups, including the al-Qaida network.

There also have been attacks over the years by Muslim youth on bars and restaurants that serve alcohol - which is legal in Indonesia, and in pockets of the country there has been bloody fighting between Christians and Muslims.

Last month, after the fatwas were announced, a mob attacked the spiritual center of the Ahmadiyah movement, which the MUI says is outside the fold of Islam because it does not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet.

The government allows Ahmadiyah followers to practice their beliefs, but bans them from proselytizing.

Abdul Basyith, president of Ahmadiyah, says local authorities did little to stop the mob.

"We are citizens of Indonesia and we have been living in that area more than 20 years very peacefully, and then just suddenly they attack and by that time it seemed to be the local authorities really didn't protect us as should be," he said.

Mr. Abdul says he is concerned religion is being used for political gain by conservatives seeking to take advantage of the government's seeming reluctance to take a stand against hard-line conservatism.

"What we are afraid is radicalism in the name of religion … for political use, for political gain, whatever. I think it's such a test for this new government," he said.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, was elected last year, but comes from a small political party. Some political analysts think that his lack of support from the country's two major parties may make him reluctant to take a firm position against the MUI's edicts.

"SBY has no interest in formulating a different vision of Islam in order to challenge an Islamic opposition because he needs Islam," said Ulil Abshar Abdallal, the co-founder of the Islamic Liberal Network, a private think tank.

"He needs Islamic support. I think there is a fear of SBY. of Islamic backlash, if he has a strong, or clear, or firm stance toward Islamic radicalism."

Mr. Ulil is a vocal critic of the MUI. He says some clerics are now reading the fatwas during prayers and he fears that could encourage hostility.

He says the NU and Muhammadiyah must strongly oppose this kind of intolerance.

"If major Islamic organizations like the NU and Muhammadiyah do not take any step to change the situation - this mosque being a breeding ground for conservatism - I think in the near future, the whole society could be provoked by these stupid clerics who give weekly ceremony at the mosque to hate other people, even to engage in violence. This is serious," he said.

Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, has a long tradition of tolerance and moderation. But these latest developments leave many concerned that may be changing.