INDONESIAN President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Thursday announced the selection of a prominent Islamist cleric and nonpolitical party figure Ma’ruf Amin as his vice-presidential candidate, as he looks to bolster his Islamic image and secure another term in office.
Jokowi’s selection of 75-year-old Ma’ruf comes at a time when the Muslim-majority country is experiencing the decline of its pluralistic brand of Islam and the rise of religious fundamentalism promulgated by influential far-right groups.
With Ma’ruf fielded as running-mate, the moderate Jokowi will be facing off with former general Prabowo Subianto and the deputy governor of Jakarta, Sandiaga Uno. Both of Jokowi’s opponents are nationalists with deep ties to the business and military elite, as well as popular ultraconservative religious groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (IDF).
Widodo’s selection came as a surprise to many. Hours before the announcement, former chief justice Mahfud MD touted himself as the Widodo’s vice-presidential candidate.
So who is Ma’ruf?
Born in Tangerang on March 11, 1943, Ma’ruf came from a fairly modest background, starting his career as a teacher in the North Jakarta districts in 1964, before rising up the ranks to become one of the most revered and influential religious figures in the country.
“Maybe there are questions from the people all over Indonesia why Professor Dr. Ma’ruf Amin was chosen. Because he is a wise religious figure,” Widodo said, as quoted by Reuters.
“I think we complete each other, nationalistic and religious.”
According to the Jakarta Post, Ma’ruf currently chairs the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia’s highest Muslim clerical body that oversees all registered Muslim organisations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah and the Islamic Union (Persis). As a central authority, the council issues fatwas and plays an advisory role in issuing halal certificates.
Last year, Ma’ruf received an honorary degree as a professor in sharia economy from Maulana Malik Ibrahim Islamic State University of Malang in East Java.
Ma’ruf’s selection is not without controversy. Last year, the cleric was a key expert witness in the blasphemy trial that sent Chinese Christian former Jakarta governor and staunch Widodo ally, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, to prison for two years. As MUI chairman, Ma’ruf signed a document to suggest that Ahok had made a blasphemous statement when quoting a Quranic verse during a speech in 2016.
The MUI was also pivotal to several controversial regulations including the country’s anti-Pornography law, which has to date blocked out 70,000 “negative” websites, and the 2013 decree banning the Ahmadiyah Muslim religious sect.
In December last year, Ma’ruf said he regretted the Constitutional Court’s decision to reject a petition to criminalise gay sex, calling for a “stern prohibition” of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender activities.
Human Rights Watch researcher, Andreas Harsono, said Ma’ruf as head of the MUI, had overseen a rise in religious intolerance across Indonesia.
“He issued fatwas condemning religious and gender minorities like the Ahmadiyah and LGBT individuals at a time they were subject to violent assaults,” he told Reuters.
Political analyst Arya Fernandes, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The Straits Times that Jokowi’s fielding of Ma’ruf shows the president’s willingness to compromise and accommodate interests of various political parties.
But even when Jokowi has his Islamic bases covered, the analyst says Jokowi faces another challenge of youth voters interested in Ma’ruf’s opponent, Sandiaga, who is a younger candidate.