FaithWorld

Indonesian ulema tell Muslims to vote or go to hell

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia this year may hinge on how the public reacts to a directive from the country’s top Islamic council –all Muslims must vote or risk going to hell.

The fatwa from the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) is not legally binding. But it does carry weight in the world’s most populous Muslim country, where Islamic conservatism has been growing since the fall of the country’s former autocratic president, Suharto, moe than a decade ago. Suharto kept a lid on politicised Islam with the same ruthless approach he took to eradicating leftist influences after coming to power following a 1965 coup blamed on communists. (Photo: Cigarette factory where orders dropped after MUI issued fatwa against smoking in public, 2 Feb 2009/Sigit Pamungkas)

The MUI has evolved from being a pliant arm of Suharto’s regime to becoming an independent body that aims to influence public policy.  The edict does not state which parties or candidates voters should choose. But it could encourage Muslims to choose Islamist candidates at the polls, pushing  the country away from secularism toward a more socially rigid government.

Indonesia’s plethora of political parties mean relatively small shifts among voters could potentially determine which groups form alliances in the April 9 general election and which field candidates in the presidential election in July.

Policy adrift over Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim boat people

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted people on earth. But they have seldom hit the headlines — until recently, that is. More than 500 Rohingyas are feared to have drowned since early December after being towed out to sea by the Thai military and abandoned in rickety boats. The army has admitted cutting them loose, but said they had food and water and denied sabotaging the engines of the boats. (Photo: Rohingyas in immigration area in soutwestern Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up. Indonesian authorities this week rescued 198 Rohingya boat people off the coast of Aceh, after three weeks at sea. Buddhist Thailand and mostly Muslim Indonesia call them economic migrants looking for work at a time when countries in the region, like everywhere else, are in an economic downturn. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International are calling on governments in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingyas and let the UNHCR  have access to them.

Myanmar’s generals have a shabby enough record with their Buddhist majority. The brutal suppression of monk-led protests that killed at least 31 people in September 2007 and the continued detention of opposition icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi bear witness to that. But their treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Chin people in the mountainous Northwest — where insurgents have been fighting for autonomy — have been especially brutal. They are not oppressed because of their faith alone, but their faith and ethnicity make them targets. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities. They are forbidden from marrying or traveling without permission and have no legal right to own land.

Lots of advice for Obama on dealing with Muslims and Islam

President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice these days on how to deal with Muslims and Islam. He invited it by saying during his campaign that he either wanted to convene a conference with leaders of Muslim countries or deliver a major speech in a Muslim country “to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular”. But where? when? why? how? Early this month, I chimed in with a pitch for a speech in Turkey or Indonesia.  Some quite interesting comments have come in since then. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

Two French academics, Islam expert Olivier Roy and political scientist Justin Vaisse argued in a New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday that Obama’s premise of trying to reconcile the West and Islam is flawed:

Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.

Obama wants to address the Muslim world — but from where?

Now here’s an interesting question. The New York Times reports that President-elect Barack Obama wants to make “a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office.” But from which one? As NYT staffer Helene Cooper explains, it’s a question that’s fraught with diplomatic, religious and personal complications. After a day of calling around Washington, she found a consensus:

It’s got to be Cairo. Egypt is perfect. It’s certainly Muslim enough, populous enough and relevant enough. It’s an American ally, but there are enough tensions in the relationship that the choice will feel bold. The country has plenty of democracy problems, so Mr. Obama can speak directly to the need for a better democratic model there. It has got the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that has been embraced by a wide spectrum of the Islamic world, including the disenfranchised and the disaffected. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

That’s a diplomatic answer, the kind you’d expect to get inside the Washington Beltway. Let’s look at this more from the point of view of religion. If the American president gives a major speech in a Muslim country, it will be seen as an indirect comment on the type of mosque-state relations found in that country. It’s not for him as a non-Muslim to endorse a certain type of Islam over another, say Sunni over Shi’ite. But as a politician from a country where church-state relations are a lively issue, one could expect him to ask what message his choice will send concerning the political relationship with religion in the state he chooses.

Gutsy pastor opens megachurch in world’s biggest Muslim nation

Pastor Stephen Tong, 20 Sept 2008/Enny NuraheniStephen Tong is one gutsy pastor. On Saturday, the head of the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church opened a multimillion dollar megachurch in Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. “This proves that there are no restrictions from the Indonesian government to build religious centres,” the Chinese- Indonesian preacher said. “It gives the world a new impression of Indonesia: it is not a messy country or full of troubles.”

Indonesia has traditionally been a tolerant country, but this tolerance is under pressure from Islamist radicals who want to drive wedges between the country’s Muslim majority (86%), Protestants (6%), Catholics (6%), Hindus (1.8%) and other faiths. Just last month, an evangelical seminary was forced out of a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Jakarta. The annual U.S. State Department freedom of religion report released on Friday reported radical pressure on Christians and on the Ahmadis, a non-orthodox Muslim sect:

Inside the Jakarta megachurch, 20 Sept 2008/Enny Nuraheni“Some groups used violence and intimidation to force at least 12 churches and 21 Ahmadiyya mosques to close. Several churches and Ahmadiyya mosques remained closed after mobs forcibly shut them down in previous years. Some Muslim organizations and government officials called for the dissolution of the Ahmadiyya, resulting in some violence and discrimination against its followers. Some perpetrators of violence were undergoing trials during the reporting period. However, many perpetrators of past abuse against religious minorities were not brought to justice.”