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Indonesia has become a primary battleground between democratic and autocratic visions of Islam in the 21st century.
The battle pits Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest civil society movement with 90 million followers and powerful ministers in Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s cabinet, against Abdullah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian-born religious jurist based in Abu Dhabi. Mr. Bin Bayyah, a Sunni Muslim high priest from the autocracy of the Middle East, provides religious legitimization to the autocratic rulers of the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Widodo risks finding himself in the crossfire of the battle. Although closely associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr Widodo has agreed to cooperate with the United Arab Emirates on religious affairs in return for massive Emirati investments in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation.
At the heart of the battle between competing theological visions of governance is the relationship between Islamic clerics and the state.
Mr. Bin Bayyah favors a state-controlled clergy that stifles free debate by avoiding what the jurist calls “fatwa chaos”. The jurist leads the Emirates Fatwa Council, created in 2018 “to remove the fatwa from the hands of terrorists and extremists”.
Hamdan Al Mazroui. the head of the Emirati General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments at the time, said the Council of Fatwas was established to “ensure the alignment of fatwas in the country and ensure the preaching of moderate Islam” . The control of religious debate in the United Arab Emirates reflects the country’s crackdown on freedom of expression in general.
The Fatwa Council has among its members Professor Amany Burhanuddin, a prominent Islamic scholar, who heads the Indonesian Council of Scholars for Women and Youth.
In diametrical contradiction with Mr. Bin Bayyah and the United Arab Emirates, Nahdlatul Ulama, under the leadership of its newly elected President, Yahya Cholil Staquf, a supporter of humanitarian Islam who spreads democracy, respect for human rights and pluralism, launched a frontal attack on the once powerful Indonesian Ulema Council.
The Ulema Council is a remnant of former state control that many consider the country’s main body of Islamic scholars made up of representatives from all streams of Sunni Islam.
The assault is designed to marginalize the Council which seeks to retain that authority as a de facto independent group. By undermining the Council, Nahdlatul Ulama is encouraging the very “fatwa chaos” that Mr Bin Bayyah and his UAE supporters would prefer to suppress.
Established in 1975 by then-President Suharto as a quasi-independent body, the Council has long stood as the authoritative voice of Islam. However, control of the council was up for grabs after Mr Suharto was overthrown in 1998 by a popular uprising, although successive Supreme Leaders of the Nahdlatul Ulama have chaired it since.
The Council has long propagated discriminatory policies against Muslim sects accused of being heretical such as Ahmadis and Shias and gender minorities. He did so with the support of conservative Nahdlatul Ulama clerics, including Mr Jokowi’s vice president, Ma’ruf Amin.
Mr Amin played a key role as Council President in the mass protests that in 2017 brought down Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok, a Chinese-born Christian, and led to his sentence to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam. .
The onslaught of Nahdlatul Ulama began last week with the resignation of the group’s supreme leader, Miftachul Akhyar, as chairman of the Council of Ulema. The resignation, which has not yet been accepted by the Council, seems to have thrown him into disarray.
At the same time, the Ministry of Religious Affairs deprived the Council of its de facto monopoly on halal certification by opening up the sector to competition.
Halal certificates are big business. The Halal Products Assistance Agency issues the certificates based on a fatwa issued by the Council to businesses in the food, fashion, education, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, tourism sectors , media, travel and medicine. sectors of health, art, culture and finance.
With the Council weakened, Nahdlatul Ulama attempts to eliminate the last vestiges of state influence over the issuance of fatwas.
This undoubtedly opens the door to what Mr. Bin Bayyah fears most. Echoing statements by senior UAE officials, Bin Bayyah attributes instability and volatility in the Middle East to a cacophony of fatwas that fuel unfettered debate rather than providing the faithful with uniform government-approved advice. the state.
In the mind of Mr. Bin Bayyah, autocracy, uninhibited by religious jurists who do not know their rightful place, is best placed to ensure social peace. Mr Bin Bayyah remained silent as his Emirati paymasters rendered his theory obsolete with military interventions in Libya and Yemen. Interventions fueled civil wars while political and financial support for anti-government protests in Egypt that toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected president in 2013 produced a brutal dictatorship.
Over 800 anti-coup protesters were killed immediately afterwards. The UAE’s intervention in Yemen in cooperation with Saudi Arabia has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, while UAE support for Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar in violation of an embargo on United Nations weapons helped push the North African nation into a protracted violent conflict.
Mr. Bin Bayyah’s silence on the chaos fueled by Emirati autocrats suggests that he “does not unconditionally oppose ‘chaos’, but rather refers only to ‘chaos’ efforts to oppose autocracy from democratically oriented forces in the region,” said Usaama al-Azami, a British Middle Eastern scholar of South Asian descent who also trained as a classical Islamic scholar.
Mr Bin Bayyah’s silence was based on his belief that jurists should not interfere with a ruler’s decisions because he “does not know the facts of the matter or the consequences of certain actions”. Moreover, Mr. Bin Bayyah argues that Islamic scholars may not be aware of “internal tensions or external concerns of a country which may lead to civil war which must be taken into account in affairs of state”. On the other hand, the leader understands the underlying reasons for his decisions and delays in situations that are difficult for others to understand,” Bin Bayyah said.
Rather than subject Islamic scholars to state control, Mr. Staquf, the newly elected chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, pledged to remove the group from politics. The assault on the Indonesian Ulema Council could be the first step in this direction. Yet the litmus test will be the future of the many Nahdlatul Ulama activists who serve in Mr. Widodo’s cabinet and as ambassadors and board members of state-owned companies.
“While the new president has publicly pledged to restore NU to a politically neutral organization, there are signs that it may well retain its close ties to the Jokowi regime, working with the government to promote the brand of” moderate Islam ‘which Jokowi endorses at home and abroad,’ said Indonesian scholar Alexander R. Arifianto.
Nahdlatul Ulama could conclude that preventing Mr Jokowi, tempted by the UAE’s financial largesse, from embracing the Gulf state’s autocratic notion of “moderate” Islam is a good reason to maintain the group’s close ties with President.
UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has pledged to lead a committee that will oversee construction of a $32.5 billion new capital for Indonesia and invest $10 billion in the country’s sovereign wealth fund focusing on infrastructure.