Pressure is mounting for the dissolution of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest Islamic institution, following the arrest of one of its top officials on suspicion of terrorism.
Anti-terror police last week arrested Ahmad Zain An-Najah, the head of the council’s fatwa office, for alleged links to Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), a terror network responsible for deadly attacks including Christmas Eve church bombings in 2000 and the Bali bombings two years later.
The fatwa commission is the council’s most well-known and powerful office as it issues edicts and policies that regulate the life of Muslims and, in many cases, affect the lives of people of other religions.
He was arrested on suspicion of being a key JI member and main fundraiser following testimony given by other alleged group members nabbed earlier by police.
His alleged involvement in terrorism has angered Muslims, many of whom have since pointed the finger at the Ulema Council and called for its disbandment.
An online petition initiated by the Indonesian Anti-Violence Society addressed to President Joko Widodo, Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian and Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, among others, has been signed by more than 6,500 people.
The council was accused of meddling in politics and being pressured to prevent Purnama, a Christian, from being elected
The petition says the council should no longer exist because it continues to be a stumbling block to religious tolerance and often supports radical movements in Indonesia.
It also says edicts and policies it issues are often against the Indonesian Constitution, the country’s secular ideology of Pancasila and split communities.
A similar petition was also lodged ahead of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election after the council expressed its views on the blasphemy accusation against the then Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. The council was accused of meddling in politics and being pressured to prevent Purnama, a Christian, from being elected.
Council chairman Ma’ruf Amin, now the country’s vice president, said his organization was merely carrying out its religious duty, not politics.
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Before his death in 2009, former president Abdurahman Wahid also called for the dissolution of the council, saying that it no longer spoke for Islam but for certain individuals within it.
He pointed to one edict that fostered hostility towards the followers of the Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims. To him, the edict justified the persecution of the community in Indonesia.
He accused the clerical body of being an institution that fosters radicalism and fundamentalism with a specific goal to turn secular Indonesia into an Islamic state.
Some council edicts have also affected Christians, such as one that prohibits Muslims from putting up Christmas decorations particularly at shopping centers and other public venues.
The fatwa was used by hardline groups to raid shopping centers and commit acts of violence.
It was also perceived in some quarters to prohibit Muslims from giving Christians Christmas greetings because saying such things suggests that God was born and was against Islamic teaching.
Despite the calls to cull the council, which the government has the authority to do, it should remain as getting rid of it will create a much bigger problem.
Many non-Muslims have defended the council, including Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a member of a presidential unit that promotes democracy and pluralism.
Although he was recently condemned by conservative Muslims for sharing a video created by a Muslim activist that calls for changes within the institution, the priest’s view that it shouldn’t be abolished shows non-Muslims do have some confidence in the clerical body.
The Indonesian Ulema Council is a huge organization as it’s a meeting point for all Islamic groups, including two of the country’s biggest ones, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.
His appointment was welcomed amid mounting criticism over some of its members being affiliated with intolerant groups
Calls for reform of the institution come from among others Mustofa Bisri, a high-ranking Nahdlatul Ulama official.
In an article published by Jurnal Garut on Nov. 20, he reminded council members of its past. It was a merger of various Islamic groups upon Suharto’s instruction that enabled him to easily control religious activities and to promote government programs.
The council has yet to free itself from its past function as a means to control the people and move forward to be an organization that promotes national unity for all.
The institution has undergone significant improvements since Miftachul Akhyar became its president last year, succeeding Ma’ruf Amin, who became Widodo’s vice president in 2019.
His appointment was welcomed amid mounting criticism over some of its members being affiliated with intolerant groups. He has placed emphasis on garnering cooperation from all clerics to stop mosques being used to spread hatred and stepping up anti-radicalism measures.
Since then, Akhyar and the rest of the board have cooperated with police and the government in fighting against radicalism. The arrest of its fatwa leader was also possible because the council leaders fully supported the anti-terror police.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government had difficulty getting all Muslims to believe in what the government was doing. The council then stepped in and united all clerics to support the government’s anti-Covid-19 efforts, including convincing people that the vaccines were not against Islam.
The challenge for the Ulema Council is placing the right person in the right place, a challenge that applies to any big organization.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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