Exclusive - Vol.8,No.2001W-The American Reporter - December 22,2002
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
JAKARTA, Dec. 3, 2002 -- In a move that might complicate Indonesia's anti-terrorism campaign, a group of local Muslim clerics, or ulemas, issued a fatwa, or death sentence, Monday against Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, saying that they have condemned him to die for blasphemy. The scholar spoke to the American Reporter by telephone today.
The ulemas issued their joint statement in a press conference in Bandung, Indonesia's fifth largest city, about 115 miles south of Jakarta, claiming that the signatories include leaders of influential Muslim organizations such as Persatuan Islam, Muhammadiyah, and the Justice Party.
Persatuan Islam (United Islam) and Muhammadiyah are two of Indonesia's oldest Muslim groups. The 20-million strong Muhammadiyah is the second largest Muslim organization after the Nahdlatul Ulama, whose leaders include former President Abdurrahman Wahid.
Persatuan Islam was established in the 1920's and is relatively smaller than the Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama. The Justice Party was established in 1998 when Indonesian dictator President Suharto was removed after 32 years in power. The party controls some seats in the parliament and is known to be a rather orthodox Muslim party but very well-disciplined.
"There is a strong indication that a network of conspiracy exists to corner Islam. This should be investigated further but the death sentence, according to the shariah, is clearly given to anyone who swears word against Islam," said Athian Ali of the Indonesian Forum of Ulemas and Ummah.
Detikcom quoted Athian Ali as saying that Ulil's column, which was published on Nov. 18 in Kompas daily, Indonesia's largest serious newspaper, was blasphemous against the Prophet Mohamad and Islam.
Indonesia has just recently joined the global bandwagon of anti-terrorism campaign after more than 180 people, mostly Australian and British, were killed in a Bali disco. With more than 200 million population, Indonesia is also the largest Muslim country in the world. It has been largely secular in its public life.
Ulil Abshar-Abdalla is the coordinator of the Jakarta-based Liberal Islam Network whose goals are to educate the Indonesian public about a "moderate interpretation" of Islam.
One distinction between Ulil and British author Salman Rusdhi, whose death fatwa issued by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini after publication of his novel "Satanic Verses" catapulted him to a world fame, is that Ulil comes from an elite and respected ulema family.
His father is a cleric who runs an Islamic boarding school. His father-in-law sits on the board of the Nahdlatul Ulama. An uncle is a deputy speaker of Indonesia's national assembly. Ulil also attended boarding school when he was a small boy, and studied Arabic in a Saudi Arabia-sponsored university in Jakarta.
It is not impossible that the threat against Ulil might prompt other Nahdlatul Ulema clerics to join in the debate. Nahdlatul Ulama is a moderate and rurally-based organization. Internet mailing lists are now filled with pros and cons about the fatwa.
"This is a threat and it's a public nuisance. The police should take action against these people," said Ulil from his hometown of Rembang in Central Java, about 310 miles east of Jakarta, in a telephone interview with The American Reporter.
He said he still does not know how to react, adding that he had not discussed the fatwa with his colleagues and other relatives. He is now back in Rembang to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fasting month on Dec. 6, in the Muslim homecoming tradition common throughout Indonesia.
In his newspaper column, entitled "To Refresh the Interpretation of Islam," Ulil argued that Muslim scholars should differ Islam's Arabic cultural context and its fundamental values such as justice and dignity. Some Islamic aspects, such as "hand chopping, veiled women, beards on Muslim men, are Arabic values."
Indonesia entered a difficult transitional democratic change with the fall of President Suharto in 1998. The process became much more complicated after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year as well as after the Bali, Indonesia, bombing of a tourist nightclub on Oct. 12, in which more than 190 people - many of them foreigners - were killed.
Many Muslim circles aired anti-America sentiment and said orthodox Islam is a way to cope with the new realities in post-Suharto Indonesia, as well as a remedy against the excesses of American-style capitalism.
Ulil joined the groups that advocate the promotion of moderate Islam. Last month he was involved in a widely-discussed debate, especially on the radio, with Abubakar Ba'asyir, an orthodox Muslim ulema, who allegedly heads the shadowy Jema'ah Islamiyah terrorist network and has been questioned concerning the Bail bombings.
Ba'asyir has consistently denied his involvement in terrorism. He also said that it was a coincidence that many of his students, ranging from the Bali bombers to others arrested on terrorism charges in Malaysia and Singapore, are involved in terrorism.
Critics say Ulil closes his eyes toward the ills of secular society, ranging from promiscuous sex to growing consumerism to the neglect of the most sacred principles of Islamic teachings, such as praying five times a day or fasting during the Ramadan.
Ulil wrote in this column that "the enemy of Islam is dogmatism." He once said that he received many responses because of the column. His column is also widely condemned or praised on more than 60 mailing lists.
The name of the Bandung forum is relatively unknown in Indonesia. Detikcom reported that Athian is an ulema who is closely associated with Persatuan Islam. Other figures in Bandung include Rizal Fadillah, a politician with the United Development Party of Reform, as well as some clerics from several Islamic boarding schools in western, central and eastern Java.
Copyright 2002 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.