MUI should be able to serve the needs of the Muslim community while also being held accountable when it makes religious judgements that could harm democracy. Photo by MUI.


Indonesia’s peak clerical body, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), is known for issuing sometimes controversial religious opinions on all matter of topics, from wishing Christians “Merry Christmas”, to Islamic banking, smoking, and even yoga.


Over the past couple of months, it sparked controversy again by issuing a fatwa declaring that it was forbidden for Muslims to not vote (or golput) in the recent elections, and stating that it was also considering issuing a fatwa against playing the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds video game, which it considered a bad influence on young people following the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.


These incidents demonstrate MUI’s growing attempts to influence the public sphere in democratic Indonesia. While the public does not always heed MUI’s pronouncements, its fatwa on issues of belief have often been highly influential. For example, its fatwa against then Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama helped trigger a mass movement calling for his punishment and left many observers worrying about the role the organisation is playing in Indonesian democracy.


MUI has always been a semi-state body. In theory it is not a state agency, but an NGO, however, it receives substantial funding from the government and is often as seen as part of the government by the public. This means its fatwa are often seen by many Indonesians as more important than those issued by any of Indonesia’s many other Muslim organisations.


MUI managed to expand its influence under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was keen to demonstrate support for the Islamic community. He stated in 2005 that MUI should take a central role in issues relating to Islamic faith (aqidah) and that the government should listen to fatwa produced by MUI.


It is therefore not surprising that the government has since demonstrated support for a series of MUI fatwa, for example, through the actions of security agencies, which have referred to MUI fatwa in making policing decisions, and even government policy, such as the Joint Ministerial Decree restricting the activities of the Ahmadiyah community, which was issued after MUI republished a fatwa against the community.


So if MUI is here to stay, what can be done to ensure it plays a more productive role? What possibilities are there for its reform?

Reformasi and the trend toward conservatism

MUI was established by Soeharto’s New Order in 1975 and was originally designed to ‘control’ the Islamic community. The body was allowed to produce fatwa as long as they did not go against the interests of the regime.


In 1981, for example, MUI issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from participating in the celebrations of other religious communities. This fatwa was perceived as direct challenge to government policy – the Ministry of Religion had been promoting joint religious celebrations among civil servants to foster religious harmony. MUI retracted its fatwa and MUI head Buya Hamka stepped down.


The reform era (reformasi) brought new life to the body. While it was once seen as an extension of the government’s interests, it has now repositioned itself as a body whose sole purpose is to cater to the needs of the Muslim community, the ummah. Alongside this political repositioning, it also transformed to become a more religiously conservative body. MUI was never particularly progressive, but it became more doctrinal both in terms of the views of its members and the fatwa produced.


Following reformasi, MUI also began accommodating a much broader range of Islamic groups. In addition to traditional and mainstream organisations like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah and Persis, MUI now appoints members from new and more conservative groups connected to transnational Islamic organisations, like Jamaah Tabligh or members of the Salafi community.


At the same time, more progressive members who were perceived to be liberals, such as Siti Musdah Mulia and Masdar F Mas’udi, were removed from MUI. Similarly, during the height of the anti-Ahok protests, the deputy chair of MUI’s fatwa division, Ahmad Ishomuddin, testified on behalf of Ahok, stating that the blasphemy accusations against him were based more on politics than a careful assessment by MUI. As a result, Ahmad was then expelled from the organisation, reportedly on the basis that he was an “inactive” member.


This trend toward conservatism has also been seen in the fatwa the body has produced, for example its notorious 2005 fatwa against liberalism, secularism, and pluralism (which it sees as social diseases and refers to as “sipilis”). Its conservative tendencies are probably best exemplified in its persistent efforts to preserve Islamic orthodoxy from Islamic streams or sects it considers “deviant”, such as Ahmadiyah, Shi’a or Gafatar. In some cases, fatwas issued against these groups have been exploited by vigilantes to justify violence against them.

What needs to change?

From the point of view of liberal democracy, having so influential a religious body is not ideal. Individual rights, one of the defining features of liberal democracies, can easily be trampled by this body, which claims divine authority.


As many scholars and surveys have shown, religious identity is an integral part of Indonesian society, and the influence of Islam on the political arena is unlikely to fade anytime soon. Indeed, as a body that has considerable legitimacy as “representative of the ummah”, MUI could even see its influence grow into the future. For this reason, it is urgent to formulate a new role for MUI so it can serve the needs of the Islamic community while being held accountable if it makes religious judgements that could harm Indonesian democracy.


There are several crucial issues that need to be addressed to reform the MUI. First, it should include a representative of the government on its board. The goal would not be to make the body subordinate to the government as in the past. Rather, government representation would function to communicate government views and concerns when MUI considered formulating a new fatwa. Ideally the government could provide insights based on social and cultural analysis to be considered in the fatwa formulation process.


Second, MUI and the government should propose some sort of minimum qualification for members. The qualifications should accommodate the diversity of Islamic traditions in Indonesia but also ensure members have sufficient skills and knowledge. At the same time, membership rules could guarantee NU and Muhammadiyah, as the two largest Muslim organisations in the country, a certain allocation of membership positions. This would help to ensure that MUI’s interpretations reflect the views of the mainstream in Indonesia.


This proposal comes with some caveats. Some scholars already suggest that both NU and Muhammadiyah are not free from the influence of conservative groups. The fatwa against Ahok, for example, was formulated by MUI under the leadership of a senior NU figure. Moreover, NU and Muhammadiyah already dominate membership positions within MUI.


Nevertheless, it is still important to recognise NU and Muhammadiyah formally, particularly because small hard-line organisations like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have had considerable success in pushing MUI to take conservative positions, such as its fatwa against Ahok. In this regard, formal acknowledgement of NU and Muhammadiyah (despite evidence of growing conservatism) would still be more reliable in preserving moderation than ceding ground to other organisations.


Third, the body should propose strict regulations to restrain their senior members from making reactionary statements on contemporary issues. There is evidence some members of the public (and indeed some journalists) have difficulty differentiating between the views of an MUI member and the formal position of the organisation. Any public statements should only be made only after careful consideration, including expert assessment of the subject discussed.

Is reforming MUI possible?

It is naive to assume that implementing these changes will be easy. There would be considerable resistance to them, particularly from conservative MUI members. Nevertheless, MUI should not simply be abandoned or considered beyond reform. In fact, there are several things that suggest reform is possible.


The first is that MUI is dependent on government relations and funding to survive. MUI is not transparent about all the sources of its funding, although it is known that it relies heavily on its authority to regulate halal certification, a privilege it has been provided by the government. The government therefore does have some leverage to demand more accountability from MUI.


The rise of MUI Chair Ma’ruf Amin to the vice presidency may also work in reformers’ favour. Supporters of President Joko Widodo were highly critical of his vice presidential pick because of Ma’ruf’s role in passing conservative and inflammatory fatwa (such as the fatwa against sipilis), and his role in the campaign against Ahok.  


However, since he was nominated, Ma’ruf has made efforts to win over Jokowi’s supporters and convince voters he is a more moderate figure. If he were to take the lead in the process to reform MUI, this could further strengthen his public image. Moreover, as a prominent figure in both MUI and NU, he has the credentials and political power to influence such a transformation.


Finally, reforming MUI would also be in line with Jokowi’s idea of promoting moderate Islam as the mainstream representation of Indonesian Islam. In his second term, Jokowi should have more freedom to implement his vision for Indonesia. As Yudhoyono’s second term demonstrated, however, this is no guarantee that he will actually do so.


Nevertheless, recent events should be enough to make Jokowi realise that the demise of moderate Islam would be catastrophic for democracy. This is especially relevant given the deep divisions exposed during the recent tragic events in Jakarta. Given this, he should not abandon efforts to promote social cohesion.


The reform of MUI is an essential milestone in efforts to prevent the negative consequences of growing conservatism in Indonesia.



Ibnu Nadzir would like to thank Yogi Setya Permana for his feedback in the process of writing this article.



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