Islam in Indonesia: Religion like breath

Intolerant of tolerance

It’s a very disappointing day for democracy when supporters of religious tolerance are publicly beaten. But that is precisely what happened this month in Jakarta when 200 activists of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) suddenly stormed the Monas Square where supporters of the Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Belief (AKKBB) were holding a peaceful rally.

AKKBB activists – most of whom were women – were attacked with sticks, leaving many injured. They had been celebrating the 63rd anniversary of Pancasila, a national creed that accepts foreign influence from Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Western thought. Pancasila is the embodiment of Indonesia’s basic pluralism, the philosophical glue that binds together Indonesia’s diverse populations.

Some time ago, while visiting a small village in East Java, I had a conversation with a local school teacher who taught students to recite the Qur’an. With great insight, he expressed concern about Muslim religiosity in Indonesia, noting a recent tendency by some Muslims to promote an exclusive brand of Islam that aims to “overturn that which has been established.” This teacher believed that Islam was already pervasive in Indonesian daily life, that it had become like air – invisible, but inhaled at every moment. To consciously “re-create” Islam in Indonesia would therefore be taking a step backward.

I am sure that most Indonesian Muslims would agree with the simple view of this village teacher. Today’s religiosity trend feels narrow and shallow. It advocates that everything should be clearly delineated as Islamic or not, conforming to shari’a (Islamic principles) or not. As a result, anything without clear distinction is considered deviant, or out of the ordinary.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) plays a lead role in this trend, since they act as a council of muftis (interpreters or expounders of Islamic principles) that issue fatwas (religious legal opinions) — something that Buya Hamka, the first chairman of the MUI, refused to do out of fear the council would represent the centralisation of Islamic interpretation and opinion.

Despite the MUI’s disclaimer that their fatwas are only moral opinions with no binding effect, Muslim hardliners in Indonesia often look to them as laws and therefore valid basis for action. For example, the MUI’s 1980 and 2005 fatwas against the Ahmadiyya movement have been used as a “legal” basis for attacks on various Ahmadiyya communities since 1983.

The trend is disturbing: the first fatwa stated that the Ahmadiyya faith was deviant, the second demanded the Indonesian government outlaw the community and dismantle its institutions. On Monday, the government – reacting to mounting threats of continued violence – stopped short of a total ban but ordered the Ahmadiyya sect to “stop spreading interpretations which deviate from the principal teachings of Islam.”

The MUI has sadly forgotten its founding statutes, which embraced the diversity of religious opinion as a dynamic of God’s mercy in the pursuit of truth, and stated that the respect of differences is a prerequisite to a holy life based on tolerance, brotherhood, and helping others. The founding statutes also mandated that the council has an obligation to create a civil society that emphasises commonalities, justice and democracy.

The virtues in the statutes were, of course, born from a long dialectic of Islamic teachings in Indonesia. Islam had spread peacefully in Indonesia by the 13th century. “There’s no reason to speak of an Islamic conquest here,” wrote Southeast-Asian specialist Denys Lombard in Le Carrefour Javanais. There were no armed attacks or systematic destructions in the name of Islam, nor was there forceful proselytising.

Attacks earlier this month by hardliner Muslims tarnish the legacy that mainstream Indonesian Muslims have built in their pursuit of a pluralistic and free Indonesia. Groups like the Islamic Defenders Front should be ashamed of their deviation from the model of tolerant Islam that has been practiced in Indonesia since its arrival.

The MUI, which is tacitly encouraging such behaviour, should return to its humble beginnings too. Even the first MUI chairman, Buya Hamka, knew how to talk with those his movement viewed as “deviant.” Though he viewed religious groups like the Ahmadiyya as apostates, he nonetheless encouraged his followers to build relationships with them, out of brotherhood and tolerance.

Embracing one another’s differences doesn’t prevent us from being holy, rather it proves that our faith is an authentic, inherent part of ourselves – like breath.

Mujtaba Hamdi is a researcher in Depok, Indonesia at the Tankinaya (Religion and Cultural Studies) Institute, which works to develop intercommunity dialogue. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). It can be accessed at

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