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A new face for the Ulema Council

Tempo - January 9, 2021

Jakarta – Moderate figures now comprise the leadership of the Indonesian Ulema Council. It is time to show a more friendly face of Islam.

The inclusion of moderate figures in the new leadership of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) gives hope for the future and the diversity of Indonesia.

Old faces such as members of the 212 Alumni Brotherhood are not among the new leadership of the MUI. The Alumni Brotherhood is a group of people who mobilized demonstrators to oppose former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who they accused of insulting Islam. Din Syamsuddin, an unpopular figure among inclusive Muslims, is also no longer part of the leadership.

Conversely, the MUI National Congress at the end of November 2020 elected Miftachul Akhyar as MUI chairman for 2020-2025. Miftachul is the advisory chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organization in Indonesia. He replaced Ma'ruf Amin, who last year was elected as the country's vice president. In his address as a new chairman, Miftachul urged the other leaders to deliver sermons courteously inviting, not ridiculing; embracing, not striking; educating, not targeting; training, not insulting; defending, not slandering.

Under Miftachul Akhyar, it is hoped that the MUI will become an organization that campaigns for Islam as an open religion. Miftachul should not hesitate to revoke MUI fatwa, or rulings, that are at odds with the principle of diversity. For example, the MUI in the past issued 14 rulings concerning misguided beliefs, including pluralism, liberalism and secularism. And it was the MUI that in 2017 declared that Basuki had insulted Islam – a ruling that led to prolonged political chaos in Indonesia.

Seen from a historical perspective, the MUI is a part of the political struggle in Indonesia. As MUI chairman, it was Ma'ruf Amin who in 2017 issued the misguided fatwa against Basuki. This successfully "intimidated" the administration of Joko Widodo into eventually jailing Basuki. In contrast, Ma'ruf was elected vice president and three years later in his welcome address at the National Convention, Ma'ruf asked the MUI to become a friend, or shadiq-ul-hukumah, to the Jokowi administration.

Established on July 26, 1975, the Indonesian Ulema Council is an organization established by the New Order regime to control Muslims. This co-opting of the ulema went ahead alongside moves to simplify political parties, subdue student movement and weaken social organizations. These moves proved to be effective. The developmentalism implemented by Suharto went ahead without any meaningful obstacles.

The new leadership of the MUI should be conscious of this historical burden. The MUI must strive for independence even though it is still dependent on the government, for example for funding for the organization. It should strive for an inclusive Islam not just to please the government, which needs this principle as a shield against the populism of religion. Pluralism must be defended because through diversity, differences are respected, and humanity is held in high esteem – two key concepts in Islam. Pluralism is also needed to preserve the unity of the Republic.

The MUI leadership should be prepared to oppose its apparent destiny as an extension of the arm of the government. The hope that the MUI becomes a friend or shadiq-ul-hukumah, should be understood as a call to put the government right if it goes off track. In other words, this suggestion should be seen as not turning the MUI into a government mouthpiece, yet alone allowing it to be used by leaders to seek political opportunities – something that unfortunately was done by Ma'ruf Amin.

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Source: https://en.tempo.co/read/1421511/a-new-face-for-the-ulema-counci