MUI and good example of disastrous media handling

The Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars There’s been much attention given to the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI) by the media lately, with its recent decision to issue fatawa (sing.: fatwa) on a number of issues, including yoga and smoking, and its inclusion in Transparency International’s latest survey on corruption and bribery perception as a public service institution that is prone to receive bribe money.  I think a little discussion on this is merited.

First of all, though, a little disclaimer: I feel neither preference nor rejection toward the MUI.  The fact that it was established originally as a way for Suharto’s New Order regime to ward off muslim dissent and add some kind of legitimacy to its autocratic rule means that part of its natural tendency is to view disagreement as a threat.  But by the same token, it also means that the council has to a degree discouraged political Islam, which is a good thing, at least as long as there is a committed secular government above it.

But we are now by and large a free electoral democracy, which means there will almost definitely be strong resistance if somebody in the government happens to come up with the good idea of subjugating the MUI.  And I don’t think anyone in the foreseeable future will be brave enough to do this.

Now for a little backgrounder, the MUI comprises representatives from Islamic organizations across the country, but how it recruits its members is a mystery in itself.  That’s right, the council actually receives public money through the Ministry of Religious Affairs, but is being run virtually without any accountability to the public.  How do they get away with it?  Well basically by just simply saying that they’re accountable only to God.  Now who’s going to argue with that?

Of course in the past how the councilors were recruited always involved heavy screening by the government who also discouraged any open and transparent process in the way the organization is being managed.  Sadly, the disbandment of the Suharto regime did not lead the council to reform its elitist organizational approach.  This is something that they need to think deeply about if they still wish to be heard by the people it’s supposed to represent.

And that brings me back to the media spotlight on the MUI’s latest annual meeting, which resulted in fatawa on smoking, voting, yoga, abortion, underage marriage and vasectomy.  My first impression on this is most media reports and commentators are overestimating the influence of the council.  For example, this report from The Guardian says:

“The council’s ruling is not legally binding but most of Indonesia’s Muslims, who make up 90% of the country’s 234-million population, are likely to follow the decree.”

bearded-protest Or the BBC, which even calls the MUI “the top Islamic body in Indonesia,” and goes on to say that “most Muslims consider it a sin to ignore [the MUI's edicts].”  Time magazine is painting a pretty scary picture by calling its article on the subject “Indonesia’s Fatwa against Yoga,” bringing to mind images of bearded men rallying in the streets while angrily chanting death to yogis.

Around the blogosphere, commentators are aptly critical about the fatawa, saying that the MUI is excessively encroaching on non-religious matters, but also overestimate their impact.  For example, Chris Taylor at Everything Indonesia is pointing out that there are many more important things that the MUI should be concerned about than forbidding yoga.  There is also Harry Nizam who is worried that the fatawa will influence people in the rural areas, because the MUI, in his words, is “the highest Moslem religious authority.”  Some other commentators are aghast that the MUI dares to forbid muslims from staying home during the election day, such as Parvita.

First, from a purely religious perspective, a fatwa, whether by the MUI, the Malaysian Majlis Fatwa Kebangsaan (National Fatwa Council), Bin Laden or even any of your instant internet mufti is just that; a fatwa.  It is a religious opinion of a mufti (fatwa giver) who is asked about a particular matter that would only be considered binding on all muslims if the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars with valid credentials agree with it.  In other words, a fatwa is about the same as an expert witness’ answer about a question relevant to his expertise that is posed to him during the course of a trial.

In the rare case that a fatwa is agreed upon by the majority of Islamic scholars with verified credentials, it is codified in the Sharia, and this is what sunni muslims refer to as ijma, the third source of the Sharia law under sunni Islam.  But again, in response to a fatwa, any muslim is free to choose whether to follow it or not.  K.H Mustofa Bisri, or cordially known as Gus Mus writes a good brief discussion on this at the NU-affiliated Ansor website here (in Indonesian).

Now saying that the MUI is the “top” Islamic body in Indonesia is also misleading.  It is not, and there isn’t any.  To Western journos, it might be a bit difficult to comprehend the nature of religious authority in Islam and differentiate between sunni and shiite Islam.  Yes, shiite Islam has a concept of religious authority similar to papacy in Roman Catholicism, where the Ayatollah holds supreme authority over all religious matters of the believers.  But the sunnis actually don’t have the same hierarchical rigidity, and religious authority for them is actually much more decentralized.

It’s also not true that most Indonesian muslims adhere to everything the MUI says, except probably for their annual decisions about when to celebrate the Eids and their halal certification, and this is especially true for rural Indonesian muslims.  Traditional communities have always had their own local religious authority, such as pesantren leaders, the kiyais and community elders, and they are the authorities that most people will listen to.  It’s instructive to learn that the two biggest Islamic organizations in the country, the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and even the more scripturalist Muhammadiyah have been critical against the MUI fatawa.  Both organizations have real scholars whose opinions are actually heard by Indonesian muslims.

There is the case of the country next door, Malaysia, which had issued its own fatwa forbidding yoga last year.  But unlike in Malaysia, there is no separate Sharia law in the Indonesian system where fatawa issued by the country’s Fatwa Council can be legally enforced.  In the country, no fatwa by the MUI will have more meaning than the bearded clerics’ ramblings unless the government legislates it–and thank god for that.

On another recent issue involving the MUI, namely the inclusion of the council in Transparency International’s (TI) survey of corruption perception and bribery index, the council’s spokespeople frankly have succeeded in making themselves look even more stupid in the way they respond to the issue.

The way the recent release of TI’s latest survey is covered by a section of the media is that the MUI is identified to be one of the most corrupt public service institutions by the TI survey’s respondents.  For example, Time magazine writes thus:

“The credibility of the council was called into question earlier in January, when Transparency International Indonesia accused the institution of being one of the most frequent takers of bribes in the country, particularly in the issuance of halal stickers for food and beverage products.”

Or, which titles its news item on the survey release “Survei TII: MUI Sering Disuap” (TII Survey: MUI often Bribed).  The impression you might get from these reports is that the MUI is pretty high up in the list of most bribery-prone public service agencies in the country.  To the religiously faithful who are flaunting “Islam is the solution to all problems” mantra to the masses, the thought of pious scholars receiving bribe money for stamping halal certificates on their client’s products would be outrageous, which is most likely why some journos chose to focus on MUI’s inclusion in the survey.

But if you take a look at the real report, the story is actually a bit more nuanced.  The survey documentation says this about the objective of the so-called Bribery Index:

“To measure prevalence level of bribery in 15 public institutions based on businesspersons experience.”

…which does not explain the rationale for specifically including the 15 institutions in the survey.  In fact, if you look further down, you still won’t find any explanation of how TI selects these 15 institutions to be in the survey.

But in fact, there are other public service agencies which have been known to be prone to bribery that TI did not include in the survey.  For example, officers at the civil registry office have been known to ask for “grease money” to speed up providing legal documents from birth certificates, marriage to the hideous SBKRI citizenship certificate, which used to be required of Chinese Indonesians.  Also absent from the survey questionnaire is the Religious Affairs Office (the KUA), whose priests charge much higher–anywhere from Rp500 thousand to Rp2 million depending on how wealthy the couple looks–for marrying people than the official price–which ranges from Rp30 to Rp150 thousand, depending on who you ask.

My point is the 15 institutions included in the survey were selected arbitrarily by TI.  They might have intended these institutions to be some sort of sample of all public service agencies in Indonesia, in which case the MUI should actually be proud for being the ‘least’ bribe prone institution in the country, because it is ranked precisely at the bottom.

Amidhan, chairman of MUI And yet, most likely without bothering to have a look at what the survey is all about, the MUI chairman Amidhan fumed in response to the news about the survey, calling it “slanderous and misleading.”  He says:

“There’s no bribery.  What do they mean by bribery?  This is slanderous and misleading.  The MUI is a religious institution and this is false.  They should expose the facts instead of making hasty statements.  They can’t do this.”

Being defensive is never a good way to deal with criticism.  It implies a corrupt, judgmental mentality, and this is the kind of image that the MUI chief is projecting about the council.  It would be wise for them to use some of the money they get for dispensing halal certificates, whether legitimately or not, on media and communications training, or better still, personality training.

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5 Responses to “MUI and good example of disastrous media handling”

  1. Hello, thanks for tagging me in this article. I have to make it clear though, that my concern does not stop with the fatwa of election abstinence, but on how MUI enters the rights of Indonesians by misusing quotation from the Qur’an.

  2. Hi Parvita. Yes, that is a very valid concern, but my point is the MUI has much less power to influence people than what media reports would suggest. In addition, virtually all scriptures have always been used to justify many deplorable behaviors. Being a realist, I do tend to focus on whether or not these things will have any influence on the masses.

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