In this seminar, Dr Mohd Faizal Musa, Dr A’an Suryana and Dr Moch Nur Ichwan examined the challenges faced in the midst of rising Muslim extremism in Indonesia and Malaysia. They also discussed the role of institutions in managing the emerging trends and narratives surrounding Islam on various media platforms.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES SEMINAR
Tuesday, 28 February 2023 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted Dr Mohd Faizal Musa (Visiting Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), Dr A’an Suryana (Visiting Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) and Dr Moch Nur Ichwan (Senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at School of Graduate Studies, State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga) to speak at a seminar titled “The Path to Moderation in Indonesia and Malaysia: Gains and Paradoxes”. Moderated by Dr A’an Suryana, the speakers shared their observations on religious organisations and how they have moderated the growing spread of extremism in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Dr A’an Suryana began the first presentation by highlighting some key statistics, stating that Indonesia had around 600 radical and pro-terrorist websites or social media accounts. Given the extent to which young people acquire knowledge from the internet, the emergence of such websites poses a potential threat to Indonesian society. Dr Suryana’s research therefore focused on the effectiveness of online media institutions in countering the dissemination of radical ideas. In particular, his research focused on moderate online media institutions, which tend to follow the approach of moderate Islam, which accepts Democracy and Pancasila ideology while rejecting Sharia and Islamic state.
Through his investigation, he found that moderate websites have been ineffective in countering the radical teachings which are spread online. Observed to have more explanatory and lengthy writings on their websites, they were viewed as unattractive to most young people. This is in contrast to religious extremist websites which use short narratives to attract attention. Apart from that, there is a lack of quality content and creativity in promoting the messages posted on their websites. That being said, there have been attempts to generate editorial content that is relatable to youths as well as to promote anti-extremism narratives through framing. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, extremist websites continue to draw attention, with some having higher viewership in the last few years. Dr Suryana also highlighted the government’s role in moderating extremism online, such as banning extremist websites, providing grants to organise workshops on journalism, as well as encouraging state enterprises to increase advertising of the websites which spread moderate ideas.
Dr Mohd Faizal Musa proceeded to present his findings, focusing primarily on the spread of extremist ideas in religious schools in Perak. He briefly elaborated on the landscape of religious education in Malaysia, focusing primarily on four types of schools (1) Sekolah Agama Bantuan Kerajaan (2) Pusat Asuhan Tunas Islam (3) Tahfiz and (4) informal classes in mosques. Based on interviews with practitioners and educators,
Dr Faizal identified three key challenges in the current religious education system. The first is the lack of regulation and standardization in the hiring of teachers. For example, some schools have teachers who are members of political parties. Aside from the hiring of teachers, some schools also have autonomy in setting their own syllabus, making it difficult to track what is being taught in class. This was especially the case for informal classes in mosques where the village official (Pengerusi Qaryah) can invite foreign preachers to teach in the mosques. The second challenge is the Increased influence from the north. More specifically, preachers or politicians from Kedah are invited to speak in mosques in Perak, which creates opportunities for the spread of political propaganda that favours certain political parties. The third challenge is students’ indirect exposure to political propaganda. This occurs through teachers’ subtle distribution of political materials in class, and the student’s involvement in extracurricular activities organized by political parties.
Dr Faizal therefore suggested that there is a need to have interventions and reforms put in place within the religious education system. This includes standardizing the syllabus across schools and to include religious extremism as a subject in the school syllabus. Apart from that, Dr Faizal also highlighted the need to closely monitor educators’ backgrounds and to allow only local preachers to teach in mosques.
Dr Moch Nur Ichwan then began his presentation by introducing Indonesia’s unique state-religion relationship. Positioned as neither a secular nor theocratic state, Indonesia established its own model, with Pancasila being identified as the state’s alternative ideology. As a result of such identification, it has a Ministry of Religious Affairs, but has no state fatwa council. Although the establishment of the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI) was engineered by Suharto in 1975, it is not a state institution, but part of Muslim society, thus facilitating its middle-ground position between state and society. While this is often criticized to be the weakness of MUI, Dr Ichwan argued that this positioning has allowed MUI to play its role of co-Islamizing different segments of society. Termed the “New Puritanical Moderation Turn”, he observed that MUI has co-Islamized the state through the politico-legal advocacy of fatwas, which in turn has influenced national laws, court decisions and government policies. Dr Ichwan also provided some examples, focusing on how MUI’s fatwas have directly and indirectly influenced laws on shariah, banking and finance, halal market as well as the national education system. Similarly, MUI’s fatwas have also been used as a reference point for Islamic social organizations and social movements/protests.
Dr Ichwan also elaborated on how MUI had gradually increased its presence within the market and media sectors. The creation of MUI’s National Shariah Board (DSN) is an example of co-lslamization of the economic system and market where it serves as the reference point for shariah banks and companies to ensure shar’i and halal-ness of its financial products. Besides, MUI was often seen to give awards for “ethical” and “religious” media contents as well as regulating pornography or social interactions on social media. Apart from that, one “new” development since 2020, is that it has intensified the discourse of “wasatiyyah Islam” (Islamic moderation), in orchestration with the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ ideological programme. It has also adopted, albeit vaguely, a “progressive” rhetoric of contextual interpretation of the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition, anti-religious radicalism, extremism and terrorism, as well as a statist, if not regimist, political theology. That being said, Dr Ichwan highlighted that this is the beginning of a new phase for MUI and the continuity of this phase would be dependent on the next administration after the 2024 elections.
During the Q&A segment, the panel discussed a range of topics, with some emphasis on the effects of political Islam, the future development of MUI, and the influence of reforms in the Middle East on Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia. All speakers also agreed that whoever controls the public sphere would have the power to influence and moderate the understanding of Islam in society. This would in turn determine the potential outcomes of such moderation within society.