Managing the Voices of Islam in Indonesia

Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs’ planned certification programme for Muslim preachers creates another state-mosque flashpoint.

Indonesians attend an Eid al-Fitr prayer at Baiturrahman grand mosque in Banda Aceh
Indonesians attend an Eid al-Fitr prayer, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at Baiturrahman grand mosque in Banda Aceh on May 24, 2020. Recently, Indonesia Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi called for a certification programme for all muballighs. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin, AFP)
Syafiq Hasyim

Syafiq Hasyim

22 September 2020

In the era of social media, even those without religious accreditation can freely propagate their religious ideas to the many. Individual muballighs (Muslim preachers) can easily distribute religious content through Youtube, Instagram, and other social media platforms to vast audiences. Some choose to propagate extreme ideas and breed hatred.

In his first term, President Jokowi mooted a state certification programme for Muslim preachers to tackle this threat to the country’s public order. Strong opposition from some Muslim groups stopped it from seeing the light of day.

Recently, Jokowi’s Minister of Religious Affairs (MORA), Gen. (ret.)Fachrul Razi, has revived the idea, calling for a certification programme for all muballighs or da’i (Muslim preachers). He states this programme is needed to upgrade the skill and knowledge of Indonesian muballighs in their dakwah (Islamic preaching) activities. Razi, who also backs a ban on government employees wearing niqab, sees unregulated dakwah in the public sphere as a potential source of religious extremism inciting hatred and promoting religious deviance. For supporters, the muballigh certification program is expected to increase the quality of dakwah activities by freeing them from extremist ideas.

Some Islamic groups that have benefited from this relatively unregulated dakwah space have indicated their opposition to MORA’s certification programme. PA 212 (Persatuan Alumni, Alumni Association) opposes the programme, arguing that the move can reduce the essence of tabligh, which means conveying the right command of Islam to the public. The Association argues that the main task of muballighs is to criticise any bad policy of those in power. They fear that the certification programme will place Muslim preachers under the thumb of the government. Their rejection is also driven by concern of losing their influence in the public arena. PA 212 has organised public meetings, demonstrations, and other activities to instrumentalise dakwah to mobilise the Muslim community against the proposed programme. So far though, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the two largest Islamic movements in the country, seem to have to remained neutral and on the sidelines of this particular state-mosque controversy.

The Association argues that the main task of muballighs is to criticise any bad policy of those in power. They fear that the certification programme will place Muslim preachers under the thumb of the government.

Opposition also comes from those worried that the programme will be abused by the ruling regime to suppress the freedom of expression. Indonesians have some previous experience with government programmes being used to discriminate against certain groups.

On 8 September, MUI (Indonesian Ulama Council) released a statement opposing the certification programme, stating that it could be abused by the ruling regime to control religious life in Indonesia. MUI advises the government not to run this programme. MUI states that the government should not associate terrorism and radicalism with the ulama, muballigh and da’i, and the Quran reciters (hafiz), or pre-judge individuals based on their dress or length of beard.

MUI though is divided on this issue. Vice Chairman of MUI, Zainut Tauhid, who is a Vice-Minister of MORA, did not co-sign the 8 September statement. The statement appears to be the work of an anti-Vice President Ma’ruf Amin faction in MUI. Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, who was consulted in the development of MORA’s certification programme, is the MUI General Chairman.  

Despite widespread criticism, including in parliament, MORA insists that the certification programme is critical. Razi states that muballigh certification is needed to foster Muslim preachers who deeply understand Islam as rahmatan lil-alamin (a mercy to all creation). Razi also states that many Muslim preachers have manipulated Islamic teaching to promote religious extremism. He argues that mosques should become the site for increasing harmony and tolerance, and not only piety (taqwa) and belief (iman).

The Jokowi administration should remain cautious implementing the proposed certification programme as there is not widespread support for it among Islamic organisations. Ideally, MORA should play the role of programme facilitator and provide oversight while a committee of ulama, experts, and professionals from various Muslim organisations outside the of the state administers the programme. This would protect MORA from accusations of misusing the muballigh certification programme. MORA should continue conducting programmes for muballighs, but no longer use the charged term, certification programme.

The public has learned that MORA often changes its policy in the face of strong public reaction. These reactive changes reflect the ministry’s poorly considered policy-making processes. Jokowi’s second term should learn from the failures of the first.

Dr Syafiq Hasyim is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Director of Library and Culture of Indonesian International Islamic University (UIII), Jakarta.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/144

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