Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

Illiberal but not intolerant

Illiberal but not intolerant
Published: Nov 25, 2007

Understanding the Indonesian Council of Ulamas

Jeremy Menchik

    Logo of The Indonesian Council of the Ulamas (MUI)

The Indonesian Council of the Ulamas (MUI), the foremost state-sponsored Islamic body, issued a series of religious edicts (fatwas) in July 2005 against pluralism, secularism, liberalism, interfaith prayer, interfaith marriage and all alternative interpretations of religious texts. Many observers were shocked by the seemingly absolutist character of MUI’s positions. One fatwa denouncing secularism, pluralism and liberalism sparked headlines around the globe, not least because it compared the three concepts to an infectious venereal disease. In a play on words, MUI used the acronym SIPILIS to refer to the dangers of these three ideas.

MUI’s edicts provoked debate about a possible upsurge in intolerance in Indonesian Islam. Observers rightly wanted to know whether Islamic organisations were becoming hostile to minority religious groups, freedom of religion, and democracy. More broadly, observers wondered whether religious tolerance in Indonesia was sharply declining. Greg Fealy argued in this journal that the fatwas indicated that the ‘conservative MUI has become more emphatically reactionary’ (Inside Indonesia No 87, July-September 2006 ).

The significance of the fatwas should not, however, be exaggerated since many of them express concerns that have been raised many times before in Indonesia. Moreover, to understand these fatwas in their social and political context it is crucial to carefully analyse precisely how MUI itself understands the concepts of pluralism, liberalism and tolerance. MUI views itself as being tolerant but not liberal. While many observers often treat the two terms as nearly synonymous, MUI makes a sharp distinction between them.

A short history of MUI

In 1975, then president Suharto, along with the nation’s ulama (religious scholars), created a hierarchical series of consultative councils intended to be a bridge between religious leaders and the state. The ulama who accepted membership in MUI were careful to maintain their religious authority and their independence from the state. Meanwhile, the Suharto regime tried to use the MUI to control political Islam. These high-level manoeuvres between the regime and the ulama did not have much impact on the broader Islamic community.

Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, MUI has worked to establish greater independence from the state and greater public prestige. It has expanded its halal certification program and its involvement in Islamic banking. MUI also keeps a close eye on public piety and is quick to issue fatwas against so-called ‘deviant’ Islamic sects as well as guidelines for dealing with issues ranging from pornography to Palestine. Today MUI stands in the centre of a wide array of political and social debates, including on the pressing question of tolerance.

Pluralism and liberalism

Why does MUI detest pluralism and liberalism? In MUI’s view, these beliefs lead society away from the straight path of Islam. Pluralism is the belief that all religions are of equal validity and can even be mixed. It teaches that the path to heaven can be found outside of Islam, and thus legitimises conversion to other faiths. MUI however, insists that Islam is the only path to heaven.

MUI sees liberalism as the idea that the answers to social issues can be found outside of religion. This idea is unacceptable to those who believe Islam has the answers to all social ills, including poverty, crime, and violence. The ultimate danger of liberalism, in this view, is that it divides the world into the sacred and the secular. The secular sphere is the enemy of a world where religious piety, not free choice, is the central ordering principle. MUI thus supports ‘pious democracy’, not liberal democracy. It supports a democracy that operates under Islam’s all-encompassing principles.

Liberal democracy, according the MUI, is a form of government that emphasises individual civil liberties, democratic decision-making, and the use of state power to promote social progress. Civil liberties include the freedom of religion, which allows all religions to exist, even those Islam regards as heretical. It also allows individuals to freely mix religious beliefs, subject only to the constraints of their own conscience. Democratic decision-making makes government policies subject to free and open public choice – a method that does not ensure that the policies are in accordance with Islamic law.

MUI is largely tolerant of Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, but is intolerant of Muslim sects that it considers heretical.

MUI supports the freedom of religion in a qualified sense: while it allows the existence of all religions, it does not support the freedom to mix religions or to interpret Islam’s sacred texts in new ways. MUI is extremely hostile to Ahmadis, who follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), an Indian Muslim who declared himself a prophet. MUI also opposes ‘liberal Muslims’, such as the Jakarta-based Liberal Islam Network (JIL). Both groups made front-page news in the months leading up to the MUI national conference, with hard-line groups such as Gerakan Umat Islam (Movement of the Islamic Community) attacking Ahmadi mosques in Bandung and Bogor in early July. In tacit support of such actions, MUI reissued its May 1980 fatwa against the Ahmadi sect, further fanning the violence towards the sect’s followers. One may note that MUI, upholding Sunni orthodoxy, issued a fatwa against Shi’ism in the early 1980s as well.

Rather than a government-led program for social reform, MUI prefers that efforts to improve Indonesian society be carried out by individuals, communities, and organisations outside the state. MUI itself has multiple agencies for managing the public affairs of the Muslim community. Its National Syariah Council oversees Islamic banks, including the requirement that each syariah bank must have three members of MUI on its board. MUI also has a Syariah Arbitration Body, which resolves syariah banking disputes outside of the government courts. MUI’s Institute for Food, Medicine, Beverages and Cosmetics provides halal certification across the archipelago. These organisations are examples of MUI’s vision of a ‘pious democracy’, in that they promote social policies in accordance with Islamic law rather than state law.


MUI is tolerant in its own way. It respects laws that protect the officially-recognised religious minority groups and, contrary to what some observers claim, does not seek to impose Islamic law on the Indonesian public. Although strengthening interfaith relations is a low priority for it, MUI is involved with efforts to work with Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. Its Commission on Inter-religious Tolerance maintains relations with other state-sponsored religious bodies and is generally respectful of other faiths. Its leaders support the notion that political leaders should be held accountable to the public.

The MUI is not necessarily moving toward religious intolerance, at least not according to the standard meaning of the term. If tolerance means a ‘disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others’ (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it) then the MUI is tolerant of Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism in that it does not aim to suppress these religions. It does, however, want them to remain largely separate from the Islamic community. For instance, it does not want non-Muslims converting Muslims.

However, MUI is intolerant when it comes to Muslim sects that it considers heretical (Ahmadis and Shi’as) and Muslim intellectuals advancing alternative or progressive interpretations of Islamic texts. They are also intolerant when it comes to issues such as pornography and interfaith marriage. This intolerance stems from an opposition to a liberalism which they identify as the notion that individuals have rights that can trump the teachings of Islam. Freedom of religion when such freedom opens the door to conversion, apostasy, and the reinterpretation of sacred texts, is unacceptable to MUI.

MUI’s vision of liberalism and tolerance has implications that go beyond academic debate. In recent weeks, MUI’s war against heresy has expanded beyond Ahmadiyah and SIPILIS. MUI fatwas against Al Qiyadah Al Islamiyah, Lia Eden, and other ‘deviant’ sects have led to the forced ‘re-Islamisation’ of some of the sects’ followers and closure of prayer centres across the country. Interestingly enough, MUI is not acting alone. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Attorney General Hendarman Soepandji and National Police Chief General Sutanto have each supported MUI’s campaign against Islamic heresy, thereby granting MUI greater legitimacy to decide matters of public piety. With this bolstered legitimacy, I suspect that MUI will continue to promote tolerance where it comes to Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, but intolerance toward individuals’ freedom of religion. In doing so, MUI’s vision of a ‘pious democracy’ may prove to be more than just a pipe dream.     ii

Jeremy Menchik (menchik@wisc.edu) is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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