Muslims gather on the road to pray outside a mosque to mark Eid al-Adha, the annual celebration known as the Festival of Sacrifice, in Ungaran, Central Java on 20 July 2021. (Photo: WF Sihardian / AFP)

The Religious Challenges Behind Enforcing Emergency Covid-19 Restrictions

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Although the mainstream Muslim organisations had supported closing mosques during Indonesia’s current round of emergency Covid-19 restrictions, the government subsequently compromised. This is another indication of the growing influence of conservative Muslim voices on Muslim issues.

On 2 July 2021, the Jokowi government announced that emergency restrictions on public and community activities would be implemented across Java and Bali due to the rapid spread of a second wave of Covid-19 cases. (The duration for the enforcement of these restrictions was originally 3 July to 20 July but was recently extended to 26 July.) Places of worship like mosques, churches and temples were categorised as carrying out non-essential activities and were ordered to be temporarily closed. 

But on 8 July 2021, the Minister of Home Affairs Tito Karnavian announced a revision to the emergency restrictions (also referred to as PPKM Darurat). A critical feature of this revision was to allow mosques and other places of worship to stay open during the emergency lockdown. In the revised policy, the new rules simply stated that places of worship were not to hold worship activities or religious congregations during the stipulated period and to “optimise” the carrying out of worship at home. While the new rules were conspicuously silent on whether places of worship should be closed, they were tantamount to allowing them to remain open. 

Significantly, the 8 July decision against the full closure of mosques and other places of worship had the strong backing of Indonesian Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, who publicly disclosed that he played a role in lobbying for the revisions to allow for mosques to remain open.

What brought about this revision? And what does this say about the Jokowi government’s ability to deal effectively with the still uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 in the country?  

The mainstream Muslim organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah were, in fact, supportive of the original restrictions and the closure of mosques. Abdul Manan Gani (head of Lembaga Dakwah Nahdaltul Ulama) stated that the PPKM Darurat should be supported because the policy was taken for the public good (maslaha). Abdul Manan stated the implementation of PPKM Darurat was under the full authority of the state. Abdul Mu’thi (Secretary-General of Muhammadiyah) also agreed with the PPKM Darurat, stating that the emergency lockdown must be taken by the government to save and protect the people from the Covid-19.

However, the decision to close mosques invited protests from some Muslim groups who expressed strong opposition to the move on social media and online media. For instance, prominent social media preacher Ustaz Abdul Somad (UAS) expressed his anger about the closure of mosques by saying that the government ought to be ashamed before God by closing mosques but keeping malls opened. Vice-Chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) Anwar Abbas argued that if offices and businesses in the red zone were not being closed, neither should mosques, adding that the nation “could be scolded by God”. Separately, Haikal Hassan (spokesperson of the hardline 212 alumni group) called on Muslims to demand that the government of Indonesia allow places of worship to remain open, at least at 30 per cent of its capacity.

Significantly, the 8 July decision against the full closure of mosques and other places of worship had the strong backing of Indonesian Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, who publicly disclosed that he played a role in lobbying for the revisions to allow for mosques to remain open.  

The government’s compromise in revising the PPKM Darurat reflected, once again, the increasingly influential role Ma’ruf Amin and the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) play in shaping decisions affecting Muslims in Indonesia. The government’s compromise was swiftly applauded by Cholil Nafis (Chairman of MUI in Dakwah), who expressed his appreciation for the revision of the PPKM Darurat, stating that it showed the government still listened to the aspirations of Muslims. Rather than seeing mosques as potential places that can spread the Covid-19 virus, he suggested that mosques could be used as coordination centres for Covid-19 protection in each area.  

The government’s compromise in allowing mosques to remain open was probably also a recognition of the futility in trying to close mosques in the first place. At the practical level, even without the revision of PPKM Darurat, many mosques in Jakarta already intended to remain open and carry out their religious activities. Most of the mosques in the greater area of Jakarta (Depok, Bekasi, Tangerang, Tangerang Selatan, and Bogor) had intended to continue holding congregational Friday prayers. Religious activities such as the holding of Islamic forums (Majlis Taklim) would also proceed. The effect of the revision, however, would have served to further encourage large mosque gatherings to take place. 

To conclude, the revision on PPKM Darurat suggests that the government has not been able to fully dictate the outcome of its intended policies. Despite the government’s exhortations on safe distancing and past experiences of large mass gatherings contributing to significant increases of Covid-19 cases, the huge crowds that gathered outside mosques to carry out the recent Eid al-Adha rituals seemed undeterred. The latest events have further underscored how religious considerations still heavily influence government policy and implementation – even the expense of policies that are meant to secure human life.

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