The big news in Indonesia these days–so far not reported in the West, as far as we can tell–is the issuance of a set of fatwas by the Council of Indonesian Islamic Religious Teachers, or MUI (Majlis Ulama Indonesia). The big doozy is this one, the translation of which we quote from the Jakarta Post: "Religious teachings influenced by pluralism, liberalism and secularism are against Islam. The fatwa states that Muslims must consider their religion to be the true one religion, and to consider other faiths as wrong." Despite its name, the MUI does not actually represent all or even most Islamic religious teachers in Indonesia, rather it is a conservative group well known for its intolerance. It started out as a government body under Soeharto’s New Order, and was relatively moderate, but has since gotten out of hand.
Indonesia is a plural place, so this fatwa has caused a bit of an uproar. Every government that has ever ruled Indonesia (that’s not too many, but still) has mandated that ethnic and religious pluralism is a fact of life in Indonesia that the government will protect. Although governments have times oppressed certain ethnic communities (most often the Chinese), governments have always been tolerant of minority religions (except for Confucianism and animism, and even this was more like just pretending that they don’t exist or don’t count as religions). Condemning Islamic religious teachings influenced by pluralism as anti-Islam throws down a big challenge to most Indonesians about their relationship to their religion. These teachings have a long history in Indonesia. Is Islam in Indonesia going to move towards the Middle East?
Happily (so far), the public reaction to the MUI ruling suggests otherwise. Muslim scholars and Muslim public intellectuals have sharply criticized the MUI’s fatwas in the past couple of days, calling them "heretical" and "anti-Islam" themselves. Others have attacked the fact that the MUI could have issued a fatwa that says that violence against other religious communities is forbidden, but did not–the reference is on an attack by some fundamentalists on the compound owned by a deviationist Islamic sect (Ahmadiya) in West Java last month. Some of these public intellectuals include former President of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid, current VP Jusuf Kalla, and other well-known Islamist thinkers, including our acquaintance Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, whom we know from the Freedom Institute, and who runs the influential Liberal Islam Network, or JIL (Jaringan Islam Liberal). They have been joined by leaders of interfaith groups, a surprisingly strong element in Indonesia’s crowded post-Soeharto civil society. A number of groups have called for the government to ban MUI, or at least stop giving it financial support.
Want to know more? Unfortunately, the Jakarta Post’s online edition has a dynamic link-changing thingy that makes directly linking to articles a bad idea, but you can browse around and find related articles. You can also check out Ulil’s writings at the JIL website, which expouses an attractive version of religious Islam that is strong in Indonesia and getting stronger with Ulil’s popular commentary. You’ll see Ulil’s picture too; he was always smiling like that.