A few days before President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was scheduled to announce his running mate in the 2019 presidential election, a statement made by respected scholar of Islam and democracy Azyumardi Azra (link is external) circulated widely on social media.
The professor, who is also a member of Jokowi’s Presidential Advisory Board (Wantimpres), advised against selecting a religious leader as a vice presidential candidate. Religious leaders might have mastery of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), he said, but such skills are irrelevant for the post of vice president, where they will be expected to assist the president in advancing Indonesian economic and social development.
Jokowi did not heed this warning. On 9 August, Jokowi and his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, announced their vice presidential picks. Both candidates’ selections were unexpected and had hardly been mentioned in the days leading up to the nomination deadline. It appears that conflicts of interest and practical political considerations won out, and Jokowi selected Ma’ruf Amin, while Prabowo selected Jakarta Vice Governor Sandiaga Uno.
Ma’ruf Amin is an ulama who serves as the spiritual leader (Rais ‘Aam) of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of two leadership positions in the nation’s largest Islamic organisation. He is the head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), and previously served as the head of its fatwa division. Ma’ruf is also the great-grandson of Sheik Nawawi Al Bantani, an ulama from Banten who was once the imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia and an influential teacher of the founders of the two largest Islamic organisations in Indonesia, Hasyim Asy’ari (NU) and Ahmad Dahlan (Muhammadiyah).
Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf was particularly surprising because so far it has been his opponent, Prabowo, who has typically been more willing to play the religion card. On 27 July, for example, Prabowo delivered a speech at a meeting of ulama (link is external) from the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwa of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (GNPF), which led the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in late 2016 and early 2017.
The meeting of ulama declared its support for Prabowo’s candidacy and suggested he select Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) politician Salim Segaf Al Jufri or religious leader Abdul Somad as his deputy. But Prabowo in the end went with wealthy businessman and Jakarta Vice Governor Sandiaga. GNPF figurehead Rizieq Shihab has since called for a second meeting (link is external) of ulama.
This is presumably to endorse Prabowo’s choice and maintain an anti-Jokowi stance, despite Jokowi selecting a religious leader as his running mate. Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf also came as a surprise because respected former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mahfud MD had been all but confirmed as his running mate, even speaking to the media in this capacity.
Ma’ruf Amin and the role of MUI in promoting intolerance
The selection of Ma’ruf Amin as vice presidential candidate has been warmly welcomed by members of NU, which claims to represent 43 per cent of the Muslim community in Indonesia, as well as by the MUI and NU-affiliated National Awakening Party (PKB). But there are also deep concerns about what Ma’ruf’s selection as vice presidential running mate might mean for the protection of the rights of religious minorities.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 10-year presidency was marked by a major deterioration in religious tolerance (link is external) and weak protection of religious minorities. This growth in intolerance and exclusivism in the practice of Islam was legitimised by the MUI under Ma’ruf Amin, and in many ways, instigated by it. During the Yudhoyono years, Ma’ruf was a member of Yudhoyono’s Wantimpres and was one of the most senior and influential figures in MUI.
Yudhoyono did not have a comprehensive vision of religious freedom or strategies for fostering an inclusive religious community in Indonesia. He relied on MUI for advice, and often deferred to MUI – and Ma’ruf specifically – when pressed to make decisions on matters of religious belief. Consequently, in the decade under Yudhoyono, MUI saw its power and influence over religious affairs grow considerably.
MUI had significant influence in promoting the dominance of Islam as the majority religion in Indonesia. A core tenet of democracy is “majority rules, minority rights” – an understanding that although the majority holds power in a democracy, minority rights must still be protected. MUI, on the other hand, has encouraged the government to ignore the rights of minorities, and actively promoted discrimination against them.
This approach is seen most clearly in the MUI’s response to minority Islamic sects such as Ahmadiyah and Shi’a, blasphemy, and construction of houses of worship, in particular, churches. Ma’ruf has shaped MUI’s perspective in these matters and has encouraged intolerant positions in all three cases.
In 2005, for example, when Ma’ruf led MUI’s fatwa division, MUI re-issued a 1980 fatwa against the Ahmadiyah community, declaring it to be a deviant sect, and triggering an increase in violent attacks against the minority group. Ma’ruf reportedly used his proximity to Yudhoyono to argue for further restrictions on Ahmadiyah rights, leading to the passage of the 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree banning the Ahmadiyah community from publicly expressing their beliefs.
Also in 2005, MUI passed a fatwa declaring that secularism, liberalism and pluralism were haram, or against Islam. These are commonly debated concepts in the relationship between religion and democracy. But by passing this fatwa, MUI effectively silenced debate in the Indonesian Muslim community on the positive contributions of religion to democracy.
As a result, it has become more difficult to promote Pancasila as the “meeting point” between religion and the state, tolerance is now understood in an illiberal manner, that is, without respect, protection or fulfilment of the rights of minorities, and efforts to understand other faiths and effectively manage religious plurality have fallen by the wayside.
Although MUI fatwa are not binding on the Muslim community, many Indonesian Muslims follow MUI’s lead – especially when its fatwa relate to matters of inter and intra-religious relations. Through fatwa and statements to the media, Ma’ruf and MUI have been responsible for growing exclusivism in the way Indonesians practice Islam.
In addition to statements declaring Ahmadiyah and Shi’a to be “deviant” sects, Ma’ruf has said that Muslims should not wish Christians “Happy Christmas”, (link is external) encouraged further restrictions on the construction of minority houses of worship (link is external) and expressed support for criminalising same-sex relations. He has often spoken strongly in support of blasphemy legislation and testified against former Jakarta Governor Ahok at his blasphemy trial.
What hope for religious freedom under a Jokowi-Ma’ruf presidency?
When Jokowi was elected, many hoped for a reversal of the intolerance that had been allowed to develop under his predecessor. There have been some limited improvements over the last four years, but the core concerns remain – religious minorities are still not able to fully enjoy the religious freedom they are guaranteed under the Constitution.
Shi’a and Ahmadiyah Muslims still face discrimination. Accusations of blasphemy are still used against minorities who demonstrate religious understandings or practices that differ from the majority. Minorities still face extreme difficulty building houses of worship.
If Jokowi is re-elected, the chances of this trend reversing are slim. Under Ma’ruf, MUI has been unwilling to accept arguments in support of minorities based on their constitutional right to religious freedom, instead relying on conservative religious interpretations that benefit the majority Muslim community. With Ma’ruf as vice president, things could well become a lot worse for minorities than they already are.