Thursday, September 29, 2005

Fatwas Against Religious Liberalism!

Islam in Indonesia
Fatwas against Religious Liberalism

Eleven new religious decrees have sparked off animated debates among the Indonesian public over the past few weeks. Moderate Muslims and representatives of liberal Islamic organisations in particular have lodged appeals and are calling for a review.
Bettina David reports

Eleven new fatwas (religious decrees) were formulated during the 7th Congress of the Indonesian ulemas council (MUI, "Majlis Ulama Indonesia"), which took place in Jakarta in late July 2005. Fatwas are not legally binding in Indonesia, but they are an important source of guidance for many devout Muslims.The decrees recently issued by MUI have aroused vigorous controversies and heated debates, and once again highlight the huge gap that exists between the liberal, moderate and the orthodox, neo-fundamentalist currents in contemporary Islam in Indonesia.

Ban on women leading Friday prayers
One of the fatwas bans women from leading Friday prayers. This fatwa is MUI's reaction to the taboo broken by Amina Wadud in New York in March of this year when she led Friday prayers that were attended by both men and women. Another fatwa deals with superstition and the associated shamanistic practices that are currently experiencing a boom in the Indonesian mass media and on television in particular.

The fatwa emphasises the danger of sliding into a polytheism that is supposedly caused by this phenomenon and that would make jinnees (spirits) objects of worship alongside God. However, the fatwa that brewed up the biggest storm was the one that categorised religious liberalism, secularism, and religious pluralism as haram (forbidden).

From the point of view of the MUI, a profession of these values equates with a break with Islam because these values are described as being incompatible with the true Islam. In its statement, the council defines religious liberalism as Islamic thought that is not based on a religious foundation, but which instead subscribes to the freedom of human intellectual capacity.

Secularism is defined as a view of the world according to which religion only regulates the relationship between individuals and God, while the relationship between humans is not regulated by any religious order at all, but must instead be negotiated by people themselves. Finally, pluralism is defined as the conviction that all religious are equal and their respective claims to the truth are ultimately only relative, and that no religion can claim to propagate the one and only truth. According to Ma'ruf Amin, the fatwa commission chairman of the council, "it is acceptable to have a pluralism that accepts the social reality that several different religious denominations exist side by side in Indonesia and that these religious should respect each other and maintain good relations with one another.

" A blow for liberal Muslim movements"

This fatwa is a definite blow for the growing influence of progressive and liberal Muslim movements like the Liberal Islam Network ("Jaringan Islam Liberal", JIL).

MUI considers religious liberalism, which speaks out against a literal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, to be a serious threat to the fundamental principles of the Islamic faith and something against which the faithful must be protected. The protests were not slow in coming: one such protest came from the former President and chairman of Indonesia's largest mass Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, loosely translates as the Awakening of Islamic Scholars), Abdurrahman Wahid, various Islamic intellectuals like the JIL coordinator, Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, and human rights activists.

Together, they issued a joint statement calling for a revision of the key points of the eleven religious decrees. Among other things, they accused MUI of propagating a one-sided, distorted definition of the concepts of religious liberalism, pluralism, and secularism, and issued a stout warning against an increase in authoritarianism in religious matters.

The second fatwa that triggered furious debates targeted Ahmadiyah. Ahmadiyah's teachings are condemned as being "deviant", "misleading", and beyond the Islamic pale in theological terms. In short, the MUI considers Ahmadiyah's followers to be apostates.

As far back as 1980, the MUI issued a fatwa that labelled Ahmadiyah as "deviant" and haram. MUI's repeated damnation of Ahmadiyah has a topical background: in July, a radical Islamic group of thugs attacked a meeting of the Ahmadiyah in Bogor, near Jakarta.

A signal for radical Islamic groups?

Critics now fear that the MUI fatwa could be interpreted by radical groups as a green light for more violent attacks on followers of Ahmadiyah.

The possible legitimation of attacks on unpopular religious groups and minorities on the basis of the fatwa is also, in the eyes of many critics, a threat to the already precarious relations between the religions in the archipelago. Officially, the MUI fatwas have the backing of 26 Islamic organisations. These have, however, issued statements calling on the people to take up the fatwas in a considered and calm way, and to resolve any differences of opinion in a "civilised" manner through dialogue and encounters.
In view of the highly charged atmosphere, both supporters and opponents of the fatwa warn against possible outbreaks of violence and call for an intense dialogue between all parties involved to resolve any possible differences.

It is worth noting that this is the first time the MUI's fatwas have aroused such emotional public debates. The MUI has long been renowned for its controversial fatwas, which have not, however, generated a comparable reaction at other times in the past.
The fact that its orthodox fatwas have caused such a rumpus this time is an illustration of a new awareness among the Indonesian public.

Different interpretations of religious matters are boldly stated and openly discussed in a way that has rarely been witnessed here in the past. The gulf that is growing between the supporters of a liberal, moderate interpretation of religion on the one hand, and a variety of orthodox, neo-fundamentalist, and radical Islamic currents on the other hints at the crucial test that Indonesia's Islam and, consequently, its democratic system will face in the future.

Bettina David© 2005Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan
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