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The impact of MUI fatwas on freedom of religion in Indonesia
Muhamad Ali, Hawaii
The fatwas (edicts) issued by the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) concerning intra and inter-religious issues in the country have generated concerns and criticisms from other scholars and the public, and clearly demonstrates that there is still a semantic and intellectual gap among the religious elites themselves about how to deal with religious diversity and freedom. Religious freedom does not seem to have won over the minds of many religious elites, or for that matter, the public in general.
Prof. Abdel Fattah Amor, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Tunis, has rightly put it, saying that each religion has a tendency to consider that it is the sole guardian of truth and is duty bound to behave accordingly, an attitude which is not always conducive to inter-religious tolerance.
Furthermore, each religion may be tempted to fight against whatever it defines as deviant either within its own faith or at its boundaries, which is equally unlikely to encourage internal religious tolerance.
The MUI fatwas that prohibit interfaith prayer, interfaith marriage, interfaith inheritance, religious pluralism, liberalism, secularism, and Ahmadiyah, are largely counter-productive to the ideals of freedom of religion and religious tolerance when one strand of religious interpretation has to be introduced to public in order to attack other interpretations existing in the community.
The edicts clearly contradict the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one article of which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest this religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The edicts are also against the 1945 Constitution Chapter 29, that stipulates that the state ensures the freedom of every citizen to adhere any religion and to perform religious duties as required by their religion and faith. The recent edicts can also be understood to go against the Koranic verses: “Let there be no compulsion in religion, Truth stands out clear from Error” (Al-Baqarah, 256).
MUI’s close relationships with the government and its perceived and actual authority among the Muslim populace gives it strategic and important position, but this position should not be used to monopolize religious interpretation. A fatwa can have considerable implications for the attitude of many Muslims. Criticisms leveled by national Muslim leaders and the public against certain fatwas indicate that they are very much aware of the powerful role of such edicts on the minds and behavior of the Muslim community. A fatwa can influence followers to become violent and vandalistic. A fatwa that encourages intolerance can be used to justify the use of violence among religious followers.
It is regrettable that one of the MUI ulemas once said that it was normal that some Muslims did not obey their edicts because the Koran and the Prophetic Sunnah itself have always been disobeyed too. Everybody knows, fatwas are opinions and not universally binding.
So why has MUI shown such anti-pluralistic sentiments? Why has MUI chosen to show its power rather than its reason by not recognizing pluralism both within Islam itself and with other religions?
Although fatwas are supposed to be flexible and can change according to circumstances, they are always not so on issues believed to for part of beliefs and rituals.
However, it is socio-political contexts that have actually shaped such lack of flexibility and change. Some of the fatwas were issued in the context of inter-religious tensions and amidst the dilemma faced by the government in promoting religious tolerance. Thus, for MUI, the prohibition of inter-religious marriage, inter-faith prayer, or pluralism, has been aimed at maintaining what they perceive to be the identity and integrity of the Muslim community.
Many Muslims have actually welcomed such anti-pluralist edicts. But there are quite a number of them who have not. MUI and many others simply do not comprehend pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression. They have defined pluralism, liberalism, and secularism in their own ways, without understanding the complexity and diversity of the terms being used among different scholars.
Thus there is still semantic gap and misunderstanding between MUI ulemas on the one hand and Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and institutions which have promoted pluralism, liberalism and secularism on the other. Therefore, MUI ulemas should do more listening and engage in more dialogue with various elements in Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike.
Moreover, MUI should be aware of the fact that today MUI is only one among many Muslim organizations and individuals. MUI is not the only authoritative and influential institution in the Muslim community. Muslims have in fact become more diverse and plural in their understanding of religion.
Globalization in media, education, and socio-cultural interaction has contributed to this diversification of Muslim beliefs and practices, which should be studied and discussed first. Any attempt to control such diversifying tendencies among Muslims will be counter-productive to intra-Muslim relationships and in many cases to inter-religious interactions as well.
What is more disturbing is that MUI has not learned that Islam recognizes freedom of expression. Actually, there are some clerics in MUI, such as former MUI chairman, Hasan Basri, who saw religious harmony as their main priority.
In 1997 KH Hasan Basri said, for example, “Being conscious that a harmonious condition among Indonesian citizens is expected by many parties, MUI as the serving organization of clerics is strongly committed to participate in realizing such a condition. For MUI, the improvement in the harmonious life of religious communities is one of its priorities.” This is the priority that MUI should be focusing on.
The writer is a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta, and is now pursuing his PhD in History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu under the East-West Center Fellowship.