Ever since Indonesia’s highest Islamic authority, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued eleven ‘fatwas’ or edicts against liberal Islam, a fierce debate has begun raging in the world’s most populous Muslim nation on what constitutes an Islamic society.

Though Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, the practice of Islam is coloured by the liberalism of the older faiths. Many urban middle class Indonesians call their liberal interpretation of Islam ‘secular’. But, MUI’s fatwas have thrown a direct challenge to both the government and to liberal Muslims in this country of 200 million people of which 88 per cent follow the Islamic faith while eight per cent is Christian and three per cent Hindu or Buddhist.

The eleven edicts, issued late July includes one which states that Islamic interpretations based on liberalism, secularism and pluralism ‘’contradict Islamic teachings’’. Also banned are inter-faith prayers performed with people of other religions and the intonation of ‘amen’ to prayers that are led by a non- Muslim which is deemed to be ‘haram’ (forbidden under Islamic law) as also are interfaith marriages.

Analysts say that MUI’s stance is a reaction to the proselytising by foreign-funded Christian evangelical sects in the country in recent years and the onslaught of globalised western culture coming in through media channels and NGOs. One such NGO is the Liberal Islamic Network, an organisation that is located within Centre for Studies on Information Flows and plays a vital role in spreading ideas on democratic reformation in Indonesia. Like other West funded NGOs, this one too is in the forefront of campaigns against attempts by the government to enact laws to restrict the spread of pornography, gambling and night clubs.

MUI has asked non-Muslims not to be upset with the July edicts as they are only aimed at Muslims, and are not the law of the land. But MUI is gearing up to promote its edicts in regions, where people are more religious, conservative and impoverished. It is these poor communities that have become the target of Christian evangelical groups for proselytising and some ulemas have reacted by including the MUI edicts in their sermons.

Hasyim Muzadi, the chairman of Nahdhatul Ulama (NU), which has around 40 million members has warned the MUI that its edicts may have a detrimental impact of the development of a civil society in Indonesia. Muzadi has asked the ulemas to define what they mean by interfaith relations and nationhood, as “we live in a diverse society and this country is not an Islamic state’’. Muslim scholar Ahmad Syafii Maarif, a former chairman of Indonesia’s second biggest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah also warned that the edicts may encourage radical groups to take the law into their own hands.

Some blame the regimes of Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri (a female) for allowing reformists within the Muslim community in Indonesia to gain in popularity. —IPS