11 August, 2010

Indonesia: Fatwa and public reasoning

It may not be surprising anymore, but every time the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) releases a new fatwa (edict), it raises wide public reaction, becoming big news in the media across the country.

Additionally, fatwas issued by clerics of neighboring countries like Malaysia are also paid wider public attention. Although it is not so clear, there seems to be a growing fatwa-phobia in our Islamized society.

The responses against fatwas have varied from time to time. Some look to expect the council to be more responsive in issuing fatwas to any socio-cultural events, changes as well as effects derived from the rapid developments in sciences, medicines or innovative technological products.

The others, conversely, also expect the same but only in order to be able to mock, ridicule and criticize the content and rationales and finally have a chance to undermine the role and position of Muslim clerics in society. While the rest take no any position whether pro or contra and simply do not care so much with what the council have discussed.

It raises a primary question on what is actually happening in this Muslim society as a whole in terms of its religious social life.

According to Jocelyn Cesari (2004), the meeting between Islam and democracy, on the one hand, engenders issues on equality and responsibility among members of the religious community, and on the other hand, faces the need to negotiate with the increasing secularization and individualization in the society as a whole.

Equality means that every individual inherits the same right to have a faith and express their religious beliefs without any restrictions from others as long as they do not violate the public interest. While responsibility is closely linked to the particular role of individuals played in the society, it has to be divided and distributed under an open agreement, a kind of a new social contract.

In this context, religiously communal institutions, for example the MUI, seem to face a big problem with two former societal issues above. The MUI council is an exclusive organization that only Muslims with specific criteria can join and give her opinions.

Its authority to issue religiously legal opinions regulating or restricting particular social behavior intersected with the basic principle of the freedom of expression in religious practices in a democratic-secular society.

The fact that Indonesia is not an Islamic state, the role of the ulema is always limited in intervening with society. Fatwas not only have have no legal power to coerce people to obey; self-appointing religious leaders is continuously challenged.

The massive availability of Islamic material knowledge particularly through the Internet provides every ordinary Muslim a wide variety of information as well as choices such as which sects or schools of thoughts or fatwa they’re likely to follow.

Fatwas, as legal religious opinions, loses their authority and are thoroughly questioned and openly contested in public.

As a result, why does society still need clerics to issue fatwas if every single answer to every question related to religion can be found using search engines.

The question is related to the increasing secularization and individualization in the society. I will not explain the term secularization as an ideology to make a sharp division between the religions versus the state, public versus private, or as the state policy in governing the religious life of its people.

Secularization is highly related to the individualization process experienced by the society or simply its synonym generated in the modern era. The spread of mass education, the growing number of middle-class people and the opened opportunity to access any information has made everybody become independent and free to articulate their opinions and to remove themselves from communal constraints.


In the religious life, the secularization qua individualization is manifested in the tendency among individuals to follow an opinion or a practice chosen from many available choices, or to seek an alternative after not having been satisfied.....more


(From The Jakarta Post)

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