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Politics

New Indonesian vice president's Islamist agenda draws scrutiny

Ma'ruf Amin is revered by many but criticized by rights groups

Ma'ruf Amin, the 76-year-old supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, is no political novice.   © AP

JAKARTA -- Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo received a letter in mid-August, urging him to support the swift passage of a controversial criminal code bill that would outlaw acts including extramarital and gay sex.

"God willing, the Criminal Code will be an historical landmark recorded in golden ink as one of the biggest achievements of President Joko Widodo, after several periods of governments never able to finalize the revision," the letter read.

One of the two signees was Ma'ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country's top Islamic body, and the country's new vice president come Sunday.

That Amin supports the conservative legislation is no surprise to human rights activists. Last year, Human Rights Watch said he has "played a pivotal role in fueling worsening discrimination against the country's religious and gender minorities."

Political analysts and people close to Amin paint a more nuanced picture of a man who has an extensive network in and out of Islamic circles and who has toned down his conservative rhetoric in recent years. Questions, however, remain on whether he will use his religious influence in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country to favor Islamic groups and companies.

The 76-year-old -- who is also supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest Muslim organization -- is no political novice. Born to a modest family in 1943, he attended an Islamic boarding school in East Java that is known for nurturing future NU leaders. At 28, he was elected to the Jakarta legislative assembly as a member of NU -- then a political party. He held several leadership positions in his 11 years in the assembly.

After building a career in the NU, he helped found the National Awakening Party (PKB), the group's new electoral vehicle, following the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. He was elected into the national parliament the next year, and held his seat until 2004.

"[The PKB] made him chairman of the commission on religion and education," Abdul Khaliq Ahmad, former secretary-general of the PKB and now a politician in the Indonesian Unity Party, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He was very capable as chairman of the commission, his knowledge extraordinary. He can dissect complicated problems so easily. The problem may be difficult, but [he] can convey them to the audience in simple language."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and Ma'ruf Amin. The president tapped Amin as his running mate in April's election to shore up his pro-Islamic credentials. (Photo by Shotaro Tani)

Controversies surrounding Amin began during his time in the national parliament. As head of the MUI's committee on fatwas -- nonbinding legal opinions on points of Islamic law -- he issued "many controversial and conservative fatwas" during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presidency from 2004 to 2014, Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in a report in March.

"In 2005, the committee issued a fatwa called SIPILIS, a term coined to demonstrate its anti-secularism, anti-liberalism and anti-pluralism," Saat said. "Ma'ruf, as the head of the committee, signed off on the fatwa."

For many, the role the cleric played in the downfall of then Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in 2015 is also fresh in the memory. Amin issued a fatwa that the governor, a Chinese Christian, had committed blasphemy by saying the Quran did not prohibit Muslims electing non-Muslim leaders.

"His long career has been characterized by a combination of political flexibility, in order to secure high-ranking and lucrative positions, and doctrinaire promotion of conservative Islam," Ben Bland, director of the Lowy Institute's Southeast Asia project, wrote before the presidential election in April. "He has regularly condemned 'deviant' practices and promoted a greater role for MUI in setting Islamic standards for society and the economy."

A recent report by a local magazine said Amin persuaded Widodo to hold a cabinet meeting to specifically discuss options for rescuing Bank Muamalat, Indonesia's oldest Islamic lender. This added to concerns that he gives preference to Islamic business over secular commerce.

Widodo and Amin on the campaign trail in this April 7 photo.   © Reuters

Yet those close to Amin say he welcomes differences.

The cleric is "very respectful to all people from different backgrounds, from religious, social and organizational perspective," Abbas, secretary-general of the MUI, told Nikkei. In meetings, he would "always find a solution after listening to all of [those concerned]" and try to reach "a moderate conclusion that will be received by others."

Abbas said Amin's biggest strength is his willingness to listen. "If you want to talk, he will give you the time to talk."

The secretary-general also painted a picture of Amin as someone who wants to make the economy conducive to helping the needy.

"The gap between the rich and the poor is very high [in Indonesia]," he said. "Ma'ruf Amin's perspective is that we must try to help the lower income people to enter the middle class ... He wants to allocate money from the higher class to push the lower class to the middle class. The rich people don't need to be afraid of Ma'ruf Amin, because he will not disturb the rich people."

Amin appears to have tempered his conservative rhetoric as he drew closer to the center of political power.

He was instrumental in defusing tensions when Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's first president and founding father Soekarno, caused outrage by writing a poem that was seen as blasphemous. Amin even appeared in a video wishing Christians a "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" last December, a big deal in a country where Muslims remain divided over whether saying "Merry Christmas" is religiously permissible.

"The role of mediation is known as his specialty. His relations are not only good within NU, but also outside NU, even outside the Islamic group," said Djayadi Hanan, a political communication professor at Paramadina University. "Ma'ruf Amin's extensive network can be utilized to maintain political and social stability."

Still, Hanan said, it will be difficult for Amin to fulfill the vice presidential role of coordinating ministers.

"To overcome this, Jokowi must choose skilled coordinating ministers because Ma'ruf Amin's coordinating role is not necessarily reliable."

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta.

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