Despite criticism in certain circles, Fachrul Razi’s appointment as religious affairs minister may be quite a good thing
The appointment of a former general, Fachrul Razi, as Indonesia’s religious affairs minister has drawn fire, particularly from Muslim clerics who say the post has traditionally been the domain of Islamic groups.
Giving it to someone outside their circle ignores this history and shows a misunderstanding of the minister’s function, the groups claim.
Opponents of the move include Robikin Emhas, a senior official in Indonesia’s biggest and moderate Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. He said many of his fellow clerics were disappointed President Joko Widodo did not appoint one of them.
Lawmaker Sodik Mudjahid, one of the MPs who oversee religious affairs, doubted Razi’s ability to lead the ministry as he is not a Muslim scholar.
Their criticism seems fair because, since the ministry’s founding in 1946, Muslim clerics or scholars have headed it. Criticism from the Nahdlatul Ulama also makes sense as the organization with over 80 million members played a significant role in securing Joko Widodo and his Muslim cleric vice-president, Ma’ruf Amin, victory in this year’s election.
However, in the context of today’s Indonesia, which is under attack from radical and extremist elements, the role of a religious minister is more than just taking care of faith practices. It requires someone who can take strong action against threats to tolerance and interfaith unity.
Razi may have a mediocre knowledge of Islam, but a combination of being a devout Muslim and his military background provide him with significant tools to do this.
Widodo billed him as the man to handle radicalism, which has gained momentum since former dictator Suharto fell and the “Reform Era” began in 1998.
Reform that has seen a relaxation of restrictions on free speech has seen the rise of radical groups espousing beliefs such as Wahhabism from the Middle East that promotes a literal interpretation of the Quran. These groups included Hizb ut Tahrir, a pan-Islamist political organization that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Despite Hizb ut Tharir being banned, its impact is still being felt, while the growth of the Islamic State group and its sympathizers in Indonesia has seen radicalism and terrorism become two sides of the coin.
This has been exacerbated by many Indonesian politicians cooperating with or using radical groups to achieve their goals, while the influence of radicalism has been growing among the young, especially in universities and mosques, which are being used by conservatives and extremists to target them.
Widodo has subsequently warned of a huge and divisive threat from radicalism, calling it a thorn in the flesh that will hamper economic and political growth in Indonesia.
As such, the president has instructed Razi to make radicalism his priority but also help people grow in faith and spirituality.
As a military man, Razi will more be predisposed to taking a firmer line with mosques and educational institutions and could synchronize the ministry’s efforts with other anti-radical or anti-terror groups such as the Indonesian intelligence and anti-terrorism agencies.
Clearing up scandals
Radicalism was not the only reason why Joko Widodo chose a soldier to head the ministry. He also wants to clean the ministry of scandals that have damaged two of Razi’s predecessors.
Former religious affairs minister Suryadarma Ali of the Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP) is serving a six-year jail term after being imprisoned in 2014 for graft.
The last minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, was tainted by connections to a senior party official accused of bribery in the appointment of ministry officials in East Java. Saifuddin was mentioned in several court proceedings in a case that is still ongoing.
Widodo’s appointment of Razi is likely an attempt to ensure the dignity of the ministry is not tarnished again by the dirty hands of politicians.
Razi is also expected to transform the bureaucracy at the ministry and lead the way in ending controversies around the issuing of licenses for houses of worship.
Religious minority groups in Indonesia, particularly Christians, often face difficulty in building places of worship in the Muslim-majority nation.
In the past decade, about 200 churches have suffered from this, the latest being Pentecostal Church community being denied permission to worship in Indragiri Hilir district in Sumatra. They were forced to stop using their church and move to another one, eight kilometers away.
In many cases, Christians could not build churches, despite having met all legal requirements, because of objections by Muslim communities
The problem stemmed from a 2006 government decree requiring any house of worship having to obtain approval from at least 60 residents of different religions and the village head before getting a permit.
The problem is that many groups use these stipulations to repress minority groups, and they are often supported by local officials.
This has always been a challenge for the government, particularly the Religious Affairs Ministry, and the newly appointed minister has promised to resolve it.
The day after his appointment, Razi emphasized that he is not the minister of the Muslim religion but of all religions in Indonesia. He vowed to use his authority to make sure that Islam “is a peaceful, tolerant and unifying Islam.”
He also said in settling church permit issues he will handle them on a case-by-case basis through dialogue. If all requirements are met, there’s no reason to withhold a permit, he said.
Let’s hope he lives up to Widodo’s expectations and the promise to uphold the freedoms of all religions.
Published in La Croix International Nov.6, 2019