Indonesian Muslim Groups Grapple with the “New Normal”
Muslim groups, which were generally in favour of the government’s partial lockdown earlier on in the Covid-19 pandemic, are now taking up a less sanguine position.
Beginning in early June 2020, the government of Indonesia started easing the Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar restrictions (partial lockdown), although new Covid-19 infections rate remains high. The decision was made to prevent further strain on the economy.
The decision has made Islamic groups turn from a general position of support for the government’s fight against Covid-19 to open criticism. In a press statement on 28 May 2020, Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, reminded the government that the implementation of new regulations must be clear in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding. For instance, the new regulations should explain the irony of mosques remaining closed while shopping malls are allowed to reopen.
Munarman, a spokesperson of the FPI (Islam Defender Front), has criticised the government’s decision for not reopening the mosques as part of the PSBB relaxation. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Munarman has held the opinion that the closing of mosques is not necessary because the number of Covid-19 cases remains low. In the same vein, Slamet Ma’arif, the National Coordinator of Alumni Association of 212, demanded that the government reopen mosques soon; if not, he warned of social disobedience. Ma’arif also stated that religious issues are very sensitive and the government should therefore reopen mosques to give Muslims their right to pray in mosques. Their views differ from Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the FPI, who has called Indonesians to remain at home as long as Covid-19 is still present in Indonesia.
In East Java province, the home of mainstream Muslim group of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), this “new normal” regulation set by the central government might no longer be relevant. During the month of Ramadan (May), the majority of Muslims in the province had already started praying in mosques, even though the province has the second highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases after Jakarta. The province’s poor handling is due to the local government’s feckless approach and the inconsistent policies of the central government.
On 30 May, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) finally issued the regulations on holding rituals at public spaces of worship. Places of worship might be reopened, but stringent Covid-19 protocols should be adhered to. The regulation is well-detailed, clearly defining the responsibilities of the executive board and worshippers (jama’ah). The specifics of these regulations are still sketchy. However, the implementation of such protocols must be taken into consideration. So far, the main weakness of governmental regulations is the enforcement aspect. The role of the regulation enforcers in this regard is very instrumental. So far, they have often been weak in enforcing the protocols on certain religious groups.
A tendency to doubt the new normal, however, continues to persist among many Muslim groups. First, the new normal is not established on the basis of an effective implementation of PSBB, but instead as a product of economic consideration. In many other countries, the preconditions of a relaxation of lockdown is a situation where the spread of Covid-19 has been brought under control and the curve flattened. Indonesian Muslim groups who are against the launch of this new normal do not think Indonesia has passed through this stage yet.
Many remain doubtful whether the new normal is indeed part of the government’s strategy to alleviate the country’s Covid-19 situation, or merely a move to create herd immunity and prioritise the Indonesian economy at the expense of the health of the general population.
Second, the new normal is perceived by many groups, including the Muslim groups, as a way for the government to give up the war against Covid-19. Several orders made by Jokowi to his staff to flatten the Covid-19 infection curve have not been accompanied by any strategy or method. By contrast, the Covid-19 curve continues to fluctuate and even to increase in some big provinces like East Java, Central Java and Jakarta.
Third, the Muslim groups are beginning to distrust the government due to the inconsistent implementation and messy policy execution, especially with regard to PSBB and social distancing in the past month. For the Sunni Muslims, embracing the doctrine of obedience to the official government is preferable, but they are beginning to defy the government for not showing strong commitment to its own policies.
In conclusion, the new normal policy seems to be bringing about a change of position of Muslim groups, from support to criticism, and from acceptance and disobedience. The Muslim groups were the main government supporters during the early implementation of PSBB, and this was evident by the decisions made by NU, Muhammadiyah and MUI. Most of them understood the difficulties the government was facing in approaching the Covid-19 issue. However, with regard to the implementation of this new normal, the Muslim groups themselves might become serious challengers. Many remain doubtful whether the new normal is indeed part of the government’s strategy to alleviate the country’s Covid-19 situation, or merely a move to create herd immunity and prioritise the Indonesian economy at the expense of the health of the general population.
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.