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Jakarta Post

Screening preachers

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, May 24, 2018   /   08:14 am
Screening preachers First prayer: Muslims perform tarawih (evening Ramadhan prayers) at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on May 16, marking the beginning of the fasting month. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

The recently released list of 200 moderate preachers recommended by the Religious Affairs Ministry has sparked debate. Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin apologized, but said he was not retracting the list, which had been compiled in response to numerous requests. The list was provisional, he said, pending the addition of many more mubaligh (preachers) who met the ministry’s requirements regarding competent understanding of Islamic teachings, preaching experience and commitment to preserving the nation’s value of unity.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who chairs the Indonesian Mosque Council (DMI), said the nation needed at least 300,000 preachers for Friday prayers alone. Were the list of preachers to be that long, it is doubtful it could serve as a practical reference to check. The ministry should simply issue its criteria for preachers, which would help boards running mosques make their selections.

The hullabaloo may, however, be a blessing in disguise. Residents should indeed take charge of their mosques and be more active in selecting preachers. Neighborhood mosques are built with collective funds, and therefore are run by the residents themselves.

Mosques on office grounds are also run by employees. But as many of us are lazy, we only grumble if a sermon for Friday prayers or another event is, for example, offensive to non-Muslim neighbors and colleagues.

The ministry apparently issued the list in response to unease over the rise of popular firebrand preachers, who were no problem in the New Order days when preachers were screened by intelligence agencies or the police. Our angst about Big Brother has made it impossible for the police to check preachers and their sermons. Nowadays, even with law enforcers targeting hate speech, preachers enjoy ample freedom to spread messages that can sometimes be far from peaceful, and based on a narrow understanding of Islam. As Muslims make up the majority of the nation’s population, non-Muslims tend to tread carefully, but still sermons giving negative commentary about Islam are leaked, whipping up tension in society.

Last week’s terror attacks, particularly the bombings committed by a family of six on three Surabaya churches, may also have a silver lining. The perpetrators were known to have long attended religious classes focused on instilling the obligation to actively defend Islam against “infidels” — non-Muslims and Muslims who do not follow their beliefs. The terrorists have been widely condemned; but the teachings they followed are merely an extreme version of the messages that many have heard from school teachers and preachers.

In our diverse society, preachers offering messages on becoming better in God’s eyes are generally preferred. But the intolerance-trumpeting fringe has been growing louder as politicians continue to turn a blind eye.    

Minister Lukman has been rebuked for his attempt to mainstream moderate preachers. Citizens must now seize the responsibility that has always been theirs — to filter the messengers of faith, so we can save our communities and our children from preachers who seek to normalize hatred of others.