Ellya Rossa's search for a traditional healer to treat a chronic heart ailment brought her to Guntur Bumi, an ustad, or Islamic cleric, who has often appeared in television commercials plugging his "alternative healing" clinic.
She first came to the ustad, popularly known as UGB, on Feb. 10, after making a telephone appointment and being told that she only had to pay Rp 500,000 ($44).
Once at the clinic in Tangerang, however, the experience was nothing like she'd imagined. The ustad claimed a spell had been cast on her. He charged her Rp 11 million to cure her, her husband and their two children – although he'd never even seen the latter, and Ellya's husband hadn't claimed to be ill.
He also told her to read through the entire Koran that very night, or if she couldn't, to pay him an extra Rp 1 million. He said if she refused to pay, she would continue to be cursed by the spell.
"He told me that patients who could afford to pay him but claimed otherwise ended up getting into an accident or dying," Ellya says. "I felt in my heart that I was being cheated, but I wanted to be cured. I told myself there was no way an ustad would cheat someone."
Guntur is now the subject of a probe by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country's highest Islamic authority, after dozens of complaints by former patients like Ellya who claimed they were extorted and never healed by the ustad.
The case is one of several high-profile scandals revolving around popular clerics accused of exploiting the influence they wield over their followers, or of violating the trust vested in them by the public.
In Guntur's case, says the MUI, the cleric has apologized to those "who felt that they were cheated," and has signed a declaration to that effect. "Hopefully UGB will change his ways and comply with the terms of the declaration," says Cholil Nafis, an MUI deputy chairman.
In the declaration, read out at the MUI headquarter on March 12, the ustad said he would "seek penance for all the wrong that I have done." He also promised to stop practicing as an alternative healer and to close down all his clinics throughout the country
Guntur said he would also pay back any patients who felt they had a legitimate grievance – but only on the condition that they were able to prove the money, gold and other items they'd paid him had not been given in good faith.
Despite the tacit admission of Guntur's fraud, the police have not launched a criminal investigation. Sr. Comr. Rikwanto, a spokesman for the Jakarta Police, says an investigation can only begin if one or more of the former patients file a report with the police.
Extortion or fraud allegations involving ustads abound. Last year the hugely popular TV cleric Yusuf Mansyur was accused of using billions of rupiah in donations from his followers to build time-share properties; Sholahudin Mahmoed, a celebrity preacher better known as Ustad Solmed, was criticized for pulling out of a gathering with Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong when they couldn't pay his fee – after he'd initially promised not to charge them.
Meanwhile, a corruption probe into the former chief of the country's biggest Islamic political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), has revealed indications of massive money laundering by the party's top officials, most of whom call themselves ustad – a title that is claimed, not conferred.
The MUI has proposed a certification system to regulate the number of clerics who can call themselves ustad, particularly for celebrity clerics who often appear on television.
Muhyidin Djunaidi, a top MUI official, says there needs to be an ethical standard that all ustads must comply with, citing what he calls a growing number of clerics who are more style than substance.
"You get ustads who sometimes make controversial statements. This is something we need to be careful about because matters of religion are very sensitive," he says.
"You also get those who are kind of eccentric. They're more about tontonan [the spectacle] than tuntunan [the guidance]. An ustad must be more tuntunan than tontonan."
Muhyidin warns that some ustads are misinterpreting the Koran when they preach to their followers, and suggests a "fit-and-proper" test administered by the MUI to gauge their understanding of holy texts. "At the end of it we could have some sort of certification," he adds.
Abusing the followers
But it's not just in matters of money or message where ustads have often strayed. Countless clerics have over the years been accused of sexual misconduct by their followers, in many cases minors or highly impressionable young people.
The most recent high-profile case emerged earlier this month in Bogor, where police have charged Saiful Sardi Jayadi, a cleric with the local office of the MUI and head of an Islamic boarding school, in connection with a sex video purportedly featuring him in a threesome with two kindergarten teachers.
The video, reportedly made in 2011, only recently caused a stir after being uploaded to the Internet.
Saiful, who faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty of the charge of distributing pornography, has since been dismissed from his MUI post. The council has also condemned his alleged actions, and welcomed the police investigation into him.
In Bekasi last month, police arrested a man who claimed to be an ustad for alleged raping a 17-year-old girl. The suspect reportedly ran a traditional healing clinic where the victim was a patient. He allegedly raped her on the pretext of treating her.
In Temanggung, East Java, last October, an Islamic school teacher was arrested and charged with raping three of his students. He refused to take the blame for it, calling the incident "a test from Allah." In another case, Hariri Abdul Aziz Azmatkhan, a TV preacher known as Ustad Hariri, has come under criticism for stomping on the head of a sound operator at an event he was attending, after a video of the assault was uploaded to the Internet last month.
The cleric has denied the attack, despite the video evidence, while his manager says he did it because the victim had been insolent and drunk. The police are not investigating the attack.
The MUI itself has not been above reproach. The council is currently embroiled in a battle with the government over which side should be in charge of a proposed mandatory halal certification system. The scheme, if it goes through, would be a lucrative source of revenue to the administering body, with producers of food and beverages, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics required to pay fees to certify their products as being fit for use by Muslims.
Halal certification is currently not mandatory, and the MUI issues its own seal of approval for products voluntarily submitted to it by producers.
Dradjad Hari Wibowo, a member of the House of Representatives who serves on the committee currently debating the Halal Products Bill, says the lack of transparency about halal testing procedures means an MUI seal is not something that would be recognized by Islamic authorities in other countries, including Malaysia, which is widely recognized as the world leader in halal certification standards.
He acknowledges that the money at stake is a huge factor, but warns that if the MUI's only motive for having control of the certification process is the revenue stream, then it will defeat the ultimate purpose of halal branding.
"Certification is obviously big business, which is why everyone's fighting over it," he says, noting that there will always be the temptation for the administering body to take bribes from producers to certify products that might not necessarily pass testing.
"So even if the product really is halal, the fact that a bribe has been transacted for the certificate renders that halal rating useless," Dradjad says.
Amidhan Shaberah, the MUI's head of halal products and business affairs, is at the heart of such a controversy. An investigative report by Tempo late last month unearthed allegations that Amidhan forced officials from the Halal Certification Authority Australia to pay Rp 300 million for an overseas junket for MUI officials in exchange for accreditation by the Indonesian council.
Amidhan has denounced the accusation as false – but notes that even if it was true, he hadn't done anything wrong because he was not a state official and therefore "I can take gratuities."
Dradjad, a Muslim scholar, says business and religion should never be mixed. "If [ustads] want to do business then stop taking money from the public in the name of religion," he previously told the Jakarta Globe.
Ustads enjoy huge influence in Indonesia, where more than a third of the population have only a primary school education, and most people see religious law as the highest authority.
That has allowed clerics to flourish and expand the ranks of their loyal and unquestioning followers. Ali Musthafa Ya'qub, the grand imam at Jakarta's Istiqlal Mosque, the biggest in the country, acknowledges that people are far too trusting of ustads, and that this trust is often exploited by unscrupulous individuals for various purposes.
"Just because someone wears a robe and a turban doesn't make him a religious teacher," he says. He cites a verse from the Koran, Yasin 21: "Follow those who do not ask of you [any] payment, and they are [rightly] guided."
The problem, Ali says, is that many Indonesian Muslims tend to follow the wrong people, often simply because they happen to be popular.
Hasyim Muzadi, the former chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's biggest Islamic organization, says ustads hold a very important responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of their followers, and thus violating that responsibility is a serious matter.
He says there is a danger in idolizing celebrity preachers, because with the higher profile come the usual trappings of celebrity excess. Dradjad says the media helps to sensationalize and distort religion, and becoming a cleric has become a profitable and prestigious profession.
"The media grooms preachers and turn them into celebrities. People adore them and are captivated, willing to part with their money in the name of religion," he says. "It should not be supported," he adds.
Media expert Nina Armando blamed a "symbiosis" between the media and preachers – the preachers need a platform while the media needs content. It is up to the public to exercise their critical faculties when viewing, she told the Jakarta Globe previously.