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Salman Rushdie's other novels include Midnight's Children, Shame and Luka and the Fire of Life.

Fatwa and Violence in Indonesia

Luthfi Assyaukanie

The National Commission of Indonesian Human Rights finally released its report on the case of the Ahmadiyah sect last January. The report followed a year-long investigation into the recent controversy over Ahmadiyah, a religious faction regarded in the Muslim world as a deviationist sect.

What is surprising is the report’s attribution of Muslim hostility towards Ahmadiyah members to a fatwa or religious opinion issued by the ulama. In Indonesia, fatwa usually comes from individual jurists or religious institutions such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). But the most authoritative source of fatwa is arguably the Majelis Ulama Indonesia or Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI).

Since its formation in 1975, MUI has issued more than 50 fatwas, mostly on Islamic legal issues such as foods, drinks, and certain conducts. With regard to the Ahmadiyah case, MUI has issued two fatwas, the first in June 1980 and the second in July 2005. In both fatwas, the council states that “Ahmadiyah is a religious sect that has deviated from Islam”. While in the earlier fatwa MUI did not clearly mention the consequence of giving such a status, in the latter fatwa it distinctly called on all Muslims to take strict action upon the organization.

Fatwa and Politics

Fatwa is a religious opinion produced by ulama. People often argue that “fatwa is not binding,” meaning that it has no legal enforcement. While it is true that there is no legal obligation for any Muslims to follow or to leave certain fatwa, it is a mistake to assume that fatwa has no social and political implications. The case of Ayatullah Khomeini’s fatwa in early 1990s against Salman Rushdie is a very clear example of the consequences of a fatwa. After all, fatwa is not an ordinary statement from a layperson but a ruling by learned and respected scholars with religious authority.

Fatwa is actually an old Islamic concept whose significance only started in the era of Islamic dynasties one or two centuries after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad. In the early period of Islam, the term “fatwa” was not technically known. The prophet’s popular saying “ask fatwa from your heart” (istafti qalbak) was only to mean that the individual consent, not the authority of jurists, is the ultimate reference for Muslim’s judgment.

However, following the formation of Islamic dynasties, fatwa began to play its significant role.

There is always a reciprocal interest between religion and politics, between ulama and rulers. It was quite common that the ulama asked the caliphs to enact their fatwa into an official decree. Conversely, it was also quite common that the ruler asked a specific fatwa from the ulama to justify his policy. In times of war, ulama and rulers go hand in hand to make a fatwa of jihad work.

Such collaboration also took place in the era of president Soeharto. In fact, the formation of MUI was strongly endorsed by the New Order regime. Soeharto needed MUI’s fatwas to back up his policies, such as the family planning program. In a strong opposition of Muslims to the idea of birth control, it was unimaginable that the program would have been succesful without the MUI’s fatwa.

With the downfall of Soeharto, the position of MUI gradually became autonomous. Following the emergence of the radical Islamic groups, MUI’s role has become increasingly significant. Now something counter to the Soeharto era is taking place: MUI seems to be controlling the state, and not the other way around.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government seemed to be reluctant, as always, to review the role of MUI. Being more independent, MUI can now determine itself, including choosing its leadership. In the Soeharto era, it was almost impossible for an ultra-conservative person to have a position in MUI. In the Yudhoyono era, this has been possible, as MUI leaders are appointed by Islamic organizations. Thus, an ultra-conservative or a radical Muslim, who has a good affiliation with a major Islamic organization, may secure his position in the council.

Some fatwas that triggered the recent spate of violence against Ahmadiyah members were inspired by those ultra-conservative jurists. There are at least two such fatwas. The first is the above mentioned fatwa against Ahmadiyah. The second is the fatwa against liberalism, secularism, and pluralism. The latter is directed at the number of liberal Islamic groups which promote ideas such as democracy, pluralism, civil liberty, and secularism.

Unholy Alliance

When mob attacks on Ahmadiyah compounds in Bogor and Cianjur broke out just two months after MUI released its fatwa, a jurist hastily distanced such acts from the MUI fatwa against Ahamdiyah. The same statement was given by Maftuh Basyumi, the Minister of Religious Affairs, who was well-known for his aversion towards Ahmadiyah members. Their argument was that a fatwa directs Muslims towards good behavior and not vice versa; therefore any negative consequences in a society cannot be attributed to the fatwa.

Such statements are quite common in Indonesia. The Muslim jurists prefer to defend themselves than to rethink the religious views that they issued or expounded. There is an irony here. On the one hand, the clerics wanted to have a fatwa heard and followed by the Muslim community, but on the other hand, once the fatwa is followed, they turn away to disclaim responsibility.

It does not need explanation to see that hatred and intolerance have been triggered by MUI’s fatwa. The following may become a case in point.

On 5 August 2005, a group of conservative Muslims gathered in a prestigious al-Azhar mosque in South Jakarta to plan an attack on the office of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) in Utan Kayu. Their banners and statements were clearly aimed at applying MUI’s fatwa against liberalism, secularism, and pluralism. Had there been no police to guard Utan Kayu, a bloodbath could have happened.

In many cases, MUI’s fatwa was backed up by the state’s apparatus. During its investigation, the National Committee of Indonesian Human Rights found at least six documents issued by National Attorney, stating that Ahmadiyah is an illegal organization whose activities must be banned. The committee also found nine documents with a similar tone issued by various government institutions, particularly the local office of the Department of Religious Affairs.


In many Muslim countries, religious leaders often enjoy a respectable status, venerated by people and demanded by government. Their views are requested as a guidance for the people. It is for this reason that there are national-level religious councils in most of Muslim countries. In Indonesia, the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI) plays a significant role in determining Muslims’ conduct. Unfortunately, however, not all of its fatwas can be regarded as providing good guidance for Muslims. As a religious authority that is supposed to uphold Islamic orthodoxy, MUI members cannot tolerate religious groups that they consider to have deviated from the “right” Islam. Instead of approaching those groups persuasively, they prefer to launch a negative campaign against them, naturally through their fatwas.

This situation is even worsened by the fact that the government is incompetent to perform law enforcement. It is rare for someone who has committed an act of violence following a fatwa to be sanctioned through due process. What does happen is the contrary; members of groups that have been attacked were caught and sent to the police for interrogation. The charge is that they have “annoyed” people with new beliefs. Instead of becoming a good agent, the government has taken sides and supported fatwas that clearly stimulate hatred and intolerance. Probably president Yudhoyono has to learn from former president Soeharto how to handle religious issues and how to successfully control MUI. After all, the role of MUI is to help the government work, and not to create social disintegration.

Luthfi Assyaukanie is the founder of Our Indonesia. This article is originally published in the Straits Times.