Alexander R Arifianto, RSIS – On 22 December 2020, Indonesian President Joko Widodo reshuffled his cabinet to replace six ministers. One of the more important changes was for the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Retired General Fachrul Razi, who occupied the portfolio since the start of Widodo's second term commenced in October 2019, was replaced by Yaqut Cholil Qoumas. Quomas is a member of parliament from the National Awakening Party, affiliated with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation.
Qoumas' appointment is a sign that Widodo is making amends with NU, one of Widodo's key supporters during his 2019 re-election campaign. Widodo's appointment of Razi had alienated leaders of the organisation since, by political tradition, the position is usually occupied by a cleric or politician affiliated with NU.
NU leaders expressed their disappointment through subtle criticisms in media statements and, more importantly, lukewarm support for his policies. For instance, they argued that Razi's proposal to institute a certification program for Islamic preachers should be implemented by Islamic organisations themselves instead of the state. The lack of NU support for Razi's policy initiatives weakened his ministerial authority and led to the perception that his brief tenure was controversial and largely ineffective.
Widodo likely reached out to NU to appease his most important Islamic ally and to work closely with the organisation on two main priorities: combating Islamic radicalism and protecting the rights of religious minorities.
Qoumas is chairman of the Ansor Youth movement, NU's wing for young activists aged 40 years and under. Ansor was widely considered a leading ally of the President during last year's general election. It has also long been known for its efforts to protect the rights of religious minorities, as seen in its initiatives to guard Christmas Eve services in Christian churches across Indonesia for the past two decades.
The organisation's one-sided actions against Islamist groups have often created controversy. For instance, it engaged in violent altercations with the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) during the heavily polarised 2019 general election campaigns. Ansor and NU leaders were thought to have lobbied the Widodo administration to legally ban HTI, a prohibition which was enacted in July 2017. Incidents like these have led some observers to question Ansor's – and broadly NU's – commitment to genuine tolerance and pluralism.
Some analysts assert that Qoumas' appointment indicates a continuation of the Widodo administration's harsh measures against Islamist groups, given the tough rhetoric he issued against FPI and other hard-line groups as Ansor chairman. The Indonesian government finally prohibited FPI on 30 December 2020.
But it is unclear whether Qoumas will enact some of the controversial proposals of his predecessor, such as the preachers certification scheme and mandatory registration of Islamic community preaching groups (majelis taklim).
Addressing discrimination against religious minorities seems to be another new policy initiative for Qoumas. In an impromptu statement issued on 24 December 2020, he announced that Ministry of Religious Affairs will review the status of the Ahmadi Muslim minority to 'reaffirm their religious rights as well as their rights as Indonesian citizens'.
Ahmadi Muslims have been victims of religious persecution for more than a decade. The Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued a religious ruling (fatwa) declaring Ahmadi Muslims a 'deviant' sect in 2005. This fatwa was followed up by a joint ministerial decree issued by the Religious Affairs, Home Affairs, and Justice and Human Rights ministries that severely restricted the religious activities of Ahmadis outside of their mosques.
Qoumas' statement immediately invoked a strong pushback from conservative Islamists. A senior MUI official urged Qoumas to consult all Islamic organisations and senior clerics before issuing a decision, since this is considered 'a sensitive theological matter'. Qoumas was forced to clarify his initiative, stating that he only intends to restore the rights of Ahmadi minorities as Indonesian citizens.
This clarification meant that, if implemented, Qoumas' initiative is unlikely to reverse the MUI fatwa or the joint ministerial decree. But it would restore the civil rights of Ahmadi minorities as citizens, including their ability to access public services such as education and health care. Human rights groups have criticised Quomas' initiative as inadequate and called on him to cancel the joint ministerial decree, since it is the root of the persecution of Ahmadis.
Qoumas' new initiatives as Religious Affairs Minister are a welcome move to counter the influence of radical Islamists and address long-standing injustices against religious minorities. He now has to prove these are not empty slogans, but an earnest attempt at promoting equal citizenship for all Indonesians irrespective of their religious beliefs.
[Alexander R Arifianto is a Research Fellow in the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.]