Opinion

Authoritarian religious
authority

In recent times, we have seen many issues regarding the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and its activities, especially relating to the issuing of fatwa or edicts. The newest one is a commercial from a cell phone operator that claims its product is the first "Muslim" phone, which was awarded a recommendation from MUI's fatwa commission.

Earlier this year, the MUI issued two fatwa relating to vote abstention and smoking. These two edicts became controversial and there are many doubts about the necessity for issuing such decisions. Somehow, these edicts were just the beginning of the emergence of other edicts from the MUI, such as fatwa regarding debus (dance) and other activities involving the use of magic. In East Java, MUI branches in Sumenep, Madura, proclaimed that begging on the streets of the capital was haram.

All of these facts cause many questions as to the real role of the MUI. Why is the MUI so quick to issue edicts? From political matters to supporting cell phone operators, is it so authoritative to do so, or is it becoming authoritarian because of its religious power?

Interestingly, if we see the history of the MUI, it became powerful and responsive, or reactive, only after the fall of Soeharto in 1998. Under Soeharto's rule, it could not do much because it was totally controlled by the government. Take, for instance, the MUI fatwa on breeding frogs, proclaimed in 1984 to support the government-sponsored program for rural development. Controversially, this edict went against the fact that most Indonesian Muslims adopt the Shafi'i madhhab, which regards frogs as being forbidden to eat.

However, this situation changed after Soeharto fell from power. MUI activities, especially in its political position, grew bigger and stronger, and began to touch on highly sensitive issues that triggered controversies. What stimulated this choice was probably the release of state pressure and the increasing power of civil society. In addition, this era was also noted as the starting point of an open debate in which the freedom of speech was highly respected. Many topics had been discussed as never before in the New Order regime. On the other hand, as the New Order regime ended, the MUI intended to revise its position and change its stigma of being the supporter of the regime's policy.

We can mention several decisions by the MUI that represent this image. In 1999, it began to get involved in politics by supporting B.J. Habibie as president. We can also see the MUI fatwa against terrorism in 2003. Another edict that triggered controversy was the one regarding Ahmadiyah and condemning pluralism, liberalism and secularism. This fatwa sparked protests even among Muslims.

From this fact, we can also analyze that the MUI and its edicts were involved not only in religious problems, but were also interfering in the public sphere, such as in social and political matters. And it is not impossible that the MUI could become authoritarian. This condition reflects what is happening within the MUI these days, when they begin to become authoritarian and condemn everything without analyzing the excesses of the fatwa.

The MUI must return into its authoritative form without being authoritarian. This means it should only issue a fatwa whenever people really need it for guidance: a fatwa that is asked for by the people and for the sake of people, which also means the issuance of fatwa should not be based on political or even economic interests.

The writer is a graduate of IAIN Surabaya and a master's degree student at Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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