The Jakarta Post
On Feb. 8-11 the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) held the sixth Congress of Indonesian Muslims in Yogyakarta, opened by Vice President Jusuf Kalla and closed by President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo.
The congress announced seven recommendations.
First, it called on Indonesian Muslims 'to unite and work together [...] for political, economic, social and cultural strengthening [...] which is just and civilized'.
Second, it called on the government and political forces 'to abandon politics which justify all means, to make politics a way to realize national well-being, prosperity, security and peace'.
Third, the government should 'take the side of the poor ['¦] by developing a people-centered economy oriented to equal distribution and justice, and support the development of a sharia-based economy'.
Fourth, the congress appealed to Muslims to 'empower themselves, develop economic potential, human resources and strengthen micro, small and medium businesses based in mass organizations, mosques and pesantren [Islamic boarding schools]'.
Fifth, the congress called on the government and society 'to be on the alert and keep oneself away from cultures incompatible with Islamic sharia and the nation's noble culture such as drug abuse, liquor, pornography ['¦], free intimacy [and casual sex] and human trafficking'.
Sixth, the congress expressed 'concern on the shifting of landscape and spatial planning in Indonesian life in many areas which have abandoned Islamic characteristics due to massive liberalization of culture and the economy'.
Seventh, the congress expressed concern over 'the condition of Muslims in several countries ['¦] particularly in Asia where they experience discrimination. The congress requests the governments of the said countries to assure protection' of the Muslim communities 'based on fair and civilized principles of human rights'.
The recommendations reflect the congress process, which was dominated by conservative voices. In all forums, conservatives groups, such as the Council of Young Indonesian Intellectuals and Ulema (MIUMI), the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), the Council of Indonesian Jihadi, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) organization, among other conservative groups, raised their voices as loudly as possible, so that the voices of moderates could not be heard.
Moderate organizations, mainly Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which have characterized moderate Indonesian Islam, played minor roles in the congress. Only a few progressive intellectuals ' such as Azyumardi Azra, Komaruddin Hidayat and Masdar F. Mas'udi ' simply gave speeches and did not follow the discussions intensively.
Let us examine a few of the recommendations. The first, which calls upon unity in politics, reflects Islamist political parties' struggle to gain Muslim voters. It mirrors Islamist politicians' frustrations, as their parties have been easily defeated by nationalist and secular parties from one general election to another.
By calling on Muslims to unite, they mean that Muslims should choose an Islamist party and support all efforts made by Islamist politicians in the national power contest. Indeed, the congress was attended by many Islamist politicians, such as Ahmad Heryawan, the West Java governor supported by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and Djan Faridz, a politician with the United Development Party (PPP). Some HTI activists brought up the system of khilafah (caliphate), though they disagree with the current Islamic State (IS) movement in Syria and Iraq. This suggestion was not taken up.
The third recommendation is a softened version of protracted debates on sharia. The actual mention of sharia, also in the fifth point, barely hides Islamists' ambition for state recognition of sharia through its laws and institutions ' though toned down in the appeal on supporting small-scale entrepreneurship in mosques, pesantren and societal organizations.
The last three recommendations show the spirit of conservatism within the MUI. The fifth recommendation to be 'on the alert' of cultures 'incompatible with Islamic sharia' can be used as justification for radical organizations such as the FPI in Jakarta and the Front of Islamic Jihad (FJI) in Yogyakarta, which have forced many stores suspected of selling liquor to close.
The voice of antipornography is also in line with the two radical groups, which limit the freedom of women; in 2013 the FJI was among those protesting the Miss Universe contest held in Bali.
The fifth recommendation underlines a previous fatwa of the MUI that deemed secularism, pluralism and liberalism as haram (forbidden under Islam) without elaborating on what these words mean.
The last recommendation clearly shows the zealous apologetic attitude, if not total ignorance, taken by the MUI regarding discriminatory and violent actions against minorities ' such as against churches, the Ahmadiyah, Shiites and followers of other local faiths. Instead the congress only points to discrimination against Muslims overseas. As an Indonesian proverb says, 'an elephant in front of your eyes is invisible, whereas a germ across the seas is obvious'.
Interestingly, some members of the congress reject the term bughat (rebel factions) for those who rebelled against the state. They ironically use the word to refer to some minority faiths.
In short, the MUI has increasingly become the voice of conservatism and radicalism. Some activists of moderate organizations joined secular NGOs and political parties instead.
This is a task for Indonesian Muslims and the government to tame radicalism in the council before it is too late.
The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta