The Asian Voice

How moderate has Ma'ruf Amin become?: Jakarta Post contributor

In his commentary, the writer says the upcoming Presidential debate will provide some answers.

Indonesian vice-presidential candidate Ma’ruf Amin seems to be trying to avoid contentious issues that may turn away potential voters. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Ma'ruf Amin's vice presidential candidacy will undoubtedly be a test for the so-called inclusion-moderation theory.

The theory says that accommodating extreme or conservative figures or parties in democratic institutions and electoral races will compel them to eschew exclusive platforms and pursue moderation.

Now, six months after Ma'ruf was chosen as the running mate of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, the theory appears to hold water. His rhetoric has indeed softened and he seems to be trying to avoid contentious issues that may turn away potential voters.

However, a closer look suggests that this is not really the case.

Let's examine three examples.

First, in late December 2018, the non-active chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and former supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) delivered an unprecedented Christmas and New Year's greeting to his Christian "brothers and sisters".

This move surprised many (and, not surprisingly, was condemned by some Muslim groups from rival Prabowo Subianto's camp), as the MUI was widely presumed to have issued a fatwa declaring Christmas greetings haram for Muslims.

Yet, contrary to this presumption, the MUI hasn't issued any fatwa that forbids Muslims from saying "Merry Christmas".

The MUI has indeed issued two fatwas on Christmas, but neither specifically concerns greetings.

The first fatwa in 1981 only prohibits Muslims from taking part in Christmas ceremonies and services.

The second fatwa in 2016 forbids Muslims from wearing what MUI views as "non-Muslim religious attributes", which include Santa outfits.

In fact, Ma'ruf has himself remarked on several occasions that the MUI's official position on Christmas greetings "remains neutral and as such, allows Muslims to hold any view they feel to be right".

So, Ma'ruf's Christmas greeting shouldn't have been surprising - except for the fact that he, in recognising his position as a vice presidential candidate, for the first time issued a public Christmas greeting for Christians.

This cannot be seen as a substantial move toward moderation, as it doesn't go against the MUI's position.

Second, in a recent interview on YouTube, Ma'ruf said he personally felt sorry that Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama was imprisoned for blasphemy.

He said he was forced to be a court witness against Ahok, as he had signed the MUI's "religious stance" declaring that Ahok's remarks constituted religious defamation, which legitimised the Dec. 2, 2016 rally against the then-Jakarta governor.

Ma'ruf had to do so because, in his words, the "context at that time was primarily about law enforcement".

Many have interpreted his statements in this interview as displaying regret.

In my view, this regret happens only at a personal level.

He does indeed seem to be a forgiving person.

When Ahok rebuked him after he testified in court and later called on him and the NU community to apologise, Ma'ruf forgave him, although that didn't stop the prosecution.

This was also the case when Sukmawati Soekarnoputri apologised for her poetry, which some Muslim groups had deemed blasphemous: Ma'ruf accepted her apology and urged the Muslim community to forgive her.

However, Ma'ruf's expression of regret still doesn't imply a change in his view that Ahok's remarks were blasphemous.

His logic against Ahok's statement that "don't believe the lies of people using al-Maidah verse 51", implying that "the Quran could be used as a tool for lying", was adopted by the court and used as "evidence" to prove Ahok's defamation of Islam.

If Ma'ruf changes his stance or, at the very least, says that the Ahok issue should not have been resolved through legal means, then we can view it as a move toward moderation.

Lastly, in a recent interview with Kompas TV, when asked about intolerance and discrimination of religious minorities, Ma'ruf expressed strong commitment to Indonesia's founding ideology of Pancasila.

He regarded Pancasila as a national consensus across Indonesia's religious and ethnic backgrounds and he, as he had done on various occasions, referred to this nation as dar al-mithaq (abode of consensus).

On this premise, he said, discrimination against minorities should not be permitted.

However, with regard to acts of intolerance and discrimination, he remarked that some acts could not been seen as such, but rather as acts of "law enforcement" according to said consensus, especially on the place of religion with regard to the state.

In his words, Islam allowed differing opinions, but "deviation is intolerable".

He appears to hold to an uncritical stance toward state laws that regulate religion, in particular the Blasphemy Law and the regulation on building houses of worship.

Ma'ruf indeed has a particular view of Pancasila.

His past writings on Pancasila often emphasise Pancasila's first principle ("Belief in God") as necessitating the state's accommodation of religious values, meaning that aspirations that contradict them should not be allowed, let alone embraced, in state policies.

In 2017, he expressed disapproval over two Constitutional Court rulings to allow followers of indigenous religions to list their kepercayaan (traditional belief) in the religion section of the personal identity card and over its rejection of the petition to outlaw premarital sex.

Except for softening his tone and being more careful in choosing his words, no changes have been seen in Ma'ruf's views.

Only when he speaks more precisely about his views on those religious groups he has declared heretical and deviant will we be able to tell whether he has undertaken a significant change toward moderation.

The answer may become clear during the upcoming presidential debate.

Though the latest surveys suggest President Jokowi still holds the upper hand, Ma'ruf hasn't contributed significantly to the incumbent's electability, particularly in regions where the President is susceptible to Islamist attacks like West Java and Ma'ruf's home province of Banten, while the challenger's camp is sneaking up on Jokowi's voter base in other parts of Java.

The writer is a researcher at Gadjah Mada University's Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, Yogyakarta. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

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