A member of the Council of Ulama Indonesia (MUI) was arrested recently for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah. MUI should make amends by explaining how such an association came about, and effect a more rigorous recruitment regime.
Recently, Indonesia’s Densus 88 (National Police’s Counter Terrorism Squad) arrested Ahmad Zain Al-Najah, a member of the MUI (Council of Ulama Indonesia). He was nabbed for his alleged involvement in the terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiah (JI). His arrest sent shockwaves across Indonesia, with some calling for MUI to take responsibility.
The fact that a MUI member might be connected to JI comes as a shock to the system. MUI leaders claim that the institution — formed in 1975 — is an umbrella organisation representing all Islamic organisations in Indonesia. MUI’s role includes issuing Islamic rulings (fatwa) at the national level. These are even higher than mass-based organisations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which only speak on behalf of their constituents. Coincidently, Al-Najah is a member of the MUI fatwa commission. Moreover, he received his doctorate in philosophy from Al-Azhar University in Egypt, and was active in the Muhammadiyah branch in Egypt (PCIM) when he was a student there. For centuries, Al-Azhar has been the centre of moderate Islamic learning that trained prominent Indonesian Islamic scholars.
Al-Najah’s arrest only weakens MUI’s attempt to tone down its conservative image and portray itself as a moderate institution. In 2015, then MUI chairman Din Syamsuddin said that the Council represents wasatiyyah (moderate) Islam and rejected all forms of intolerance. But the behaviour and discourse of MUI leaders often contradict the moderate image MUI claims to represent. After the fall of the New Order regime in 1998, it reiterated the fatwa on Ahmadiah deviancy, declared Shi’as outside the fold of mainstream Islam, and banned liberalism, secularism and pluralism (through the SIPILIS fatwa in 2005). Conservative Muslim organisations like FPI (Islamic Defender’s Front), HTI (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia) and FUI (Indonesian Forum of Islamic Society) too have representatives in the institution. For example, conservative personalities like Ismail Yusanto, Adian Husaini, Ahmad Khaththath, Cholil Ridwan were previously co-opted into MUI as board members in the name of the institution wanting to be ‘inclusive’. Lately, MUI leaders are championing greater shariatisation: promoting Islamic banking and finance, halal certification, shariah-compliant lifestyles, and shariah tourism, among others. This indirectly portrays conventional banking and finance institutions as un-Islamic.
Despite all its promotion of conservative, and at times, commodified Islam, MUI has never promoted terrorism. In 2004, MUI published a fatwa banning terrorism, stating that terrorism is haram (a sin) and it is not part of jihad (holy war). In fact, in response to public criticisms of MUI’s poor handling of the Al-Najah saga, Indonesia’s vice president Ma’ruf Amin stated that MUI is the state’s partner in eradicating radicalism.
With his arrest, MUI immediately clarified that his involvement in JI was a personal choice that MUI did not endorse. Yet, the revelation by Densus 88 only demonstrates how extremist and terrorist organisations can penetrate MUI.
As it turned out, Al-Najah has been able to conceal his JI membership while continuing his involvement in MUI. With his arrest, MUI immediately clarified that his involvement in JI was a personal choice that MUI did not endorse. Yet, the revelation by Densus 88 only demonstrates how extremist and terrorist organisations can penetrate MUI. In the past, NU and Muhammadiyah members made up most of the MUI board. Since 2010, their presence has been saturated after MUI wanted to be more accommodating even to exclusivist voices.
Unsurprisingly, the public is outraged by the news. Netizens are calling for the banning of MUI altogether. To many netizens, MUI’s clarification is not enough; they think that the organisation must bear responsibility.
Rather than responding to criticisms objectively, its leaders have either treated Al-Najah’s arrest as a non-issue or reacted defensively. Anwar Abbas, a MUI vice-chairman, has even turned combative, and has stated that if the people continue to call for MUI’s disbandment, Indonesia must be disbanded too. Anwar’s statement underscores a tinge of arrogance. MUI leaders could have come clean and explained the extent of Al-Najah’s role in the organisation, how he was inducted into the 46-year-old institution, and when he joined it. They could have used the opportunity to burnish MUI’s public image, which was already not ideal to begin with. MUI leaders could have quickly apologised and pledged to improve their recruitment methods.
What more can MUI do? So far, MUI has been relying on Muslim organisations sending representatives. MUI assumes that these organisations will send their best cadres to MUI. As Al-Najah’s case demonstrates, this recruitment method must change, and proper screening of new members must be installed. Furthermore, MUI must use Al-Najah’s case to cleanse itself from accusations of harbouring someone linked to JI and address the circumstances that lead to terrorism and violent extremism. MUI can also adopt the model of tes wawancara kebangsaan (the civic knowledge test) for its new members. On the one hand, this test can solicit new members’ Islamic views. On the other, the mechanism can also evaluate how they perceive Indonesia’s nationhood and diversity. In other words, more stringent measures are needed to ensure only qualified personnel are inducted. But one can easily counter-argue: is not Al-Najah’s paper certification from Al-Azhar university enough to qualify him as an ulama? This makes the test to understand religious orientations and views on a range of issues even more pertinent, such as gender equality, multiculturalism, religious diversity, openness towards local cultural practices, and conceptions of state and governance.
While MUI can disassociate itself from terrorism, and the public can unequivocally identify those threats to innocent lives as un-Islamic, the public must continue to check MUI’s role in promoting non-violent extremism. Ultimately, all acts of terror begin with exclusivist views: such as intolerant views towards non-Muslims, declaring alternative viewpoints as deviant, or being silent when religious minorities are harmed. In this context, the call to disband MUI after one member is associated with JI is unjustifiable, but wresting the institution from the hands of exclusivists is more urgent.
Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.