Group of Muslim scholars gains political clout in Indonesia
JAKARTA: In a sign of its growing prominence, the Council of Ulemas in Indonesia has moved its headquarters from the basement of a major mosque here into an expensive new office tower in the heart of the capital.
The council was established in 1975 by Suharto, the country’s leader for three decades, as a quasi-governmental body of Muslim scholars, partly as a tool to keep politically minded Islamic organizations in check.
But in the decade since the dictator’s fall, the group – whose leaders have increasingly espoused a radical form of Islam – has worked to establish itself as an assertive political force.
The group, known as MUI, built an impressive network of offices throughout the country, staffed by people who promote the council’s view of Islam. It logged its first major political success this summer when the government agreed to severely restrict the activities of a Muslim sect that does not believe that Muhammad was the last prophet.
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Advocates of religious tolerance worry that the council’s new clout could signal the start of a religious radicalization in a country known for its moderate brand of Islam.
“Islamists use the MUI as a major base of operations, coordinating support for the Islamist agenda,” said Holland Taylor, founder of LibForAll Foundation, an American and Indonesian nongovernmental group that promotes religious pluralism.
Among the goals of some prominent council members is the introduction of Shariah, or Islamic law, in traditionally secular Indonesia.
But other experts, even some concerned about the council’s conservative leanings and newfound influence, see the broader radicalization of Indonesian Islam as unlikely. They point out that Indonesia’s largest Islamic association, the Nahdlatul Ulama, promotes tolerance and religious pluralism, and that Islamic political parties have struggled to gain ground in recent years.
Beyond that, broad anti-pornography legislation that had been championed by the Council of Ulemas and its allies in Parliament has been scaled back after a public backlash that included large street protests.
“I don’t think the Council of Ulemas is going to turn Indonesia into the Sudan,” said Sidney Jones, director of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, citing “many other balancing forces.”
The council is an umbrella group that represents established Muslim organizations. In addition to advising the government on religious issues, it distributes fatwas, or religious directives, advising Muslims on how to practice their faith. Its fatwas are nonbinding.
Maruf Amin, the deputy chairman of the council, describes it as a moderate organization that represents the views of more than 60 Islamic groups in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
“Our job is to communicate to the government the aspirations of Muslim people in Indonesia,” he said, “and to protect the Islamic population here from any bad influences that might lead them to deviate from their faith.”
But some analysts who have studied the group say Islamic conservatives have had an increasingly dominant role in the group over the last few years.
“The council has a long history of moderation, but lately it has been infiltrated by some hard-liners,” said Azyumardi Azra, director of the graduate school at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. “I have told its leaders that if they want to remain a representative organization, they need to be aware of this infiltration.”
The growing prominence of radical voices is partly a byproduct of the transition to democracy. Religious leaders who were often silenced during Suharto’s rule now have the freedom to propagate their extreme views and have often proved adept at using the democratic system.
The growing relevance of the Council of Ulemas is partly a result of its budget, which some analysts believe is growing. (Neither the council nor the government would provide numbers.) In addition to government financing, the council also makes money through its sole authority to license halal food and medicine. More recently, the council has tapped into Indonesia’s lucrative Islamic banking industry. It acts as one of several organizations overseeing banks that refuse loans to companies involved in businesses that are contrary to Islamic values, like those producing alcohol or selling pork.
These financing sources have allowed it to purchase its new office tower and to operate more than 150 satellite offices.
But analysts say the group has also benefited from its relationship with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Although the president is considered moderate, in a speech last year he said that after the council issues any fatwas, “the tools of the state can do their duty.”
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