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When religion meets Covid-19 in Indonesia: more than a matter of conservatives and moderates

Corona viurs

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented believers with a dilemma: either they choose to “lockdown” their prayers at home, or they view the pandemic as a challenge of their faith and, in response, refuse to maintain a “social distance” from God and the public rituals that are part of their beliefs.

Indonesia is home to more than two hundred million believers, from six official religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It is no surprise that these religions have responded in different and complex ways to the Covid-19 crisis. This has been one of the hottest of topics of the day, next to the extremely popular Korean dramas on TV, of course.

The global pandemic has forced believers to contemplate a fundamental question: what is the purpose or benefit of ritual and worship? Is it something performed only to serve God, no matter the situation? Or is its purpose to make you and your loved ones happy and safe?

Those who believe that ritual is intended primarily to serve God will put public worship ahead of concerns over Covid-19. They challenge other believers with difficult questions: “Why you are afraid of the virus? You should be afraid of God.” They oppose government regulations forbidding them to organise mass prayers in holy places, such as mosques, churches or temples.

Those who take the second position believe God does not need our prayers –we are the ones who need God. There is room for interpretation and relaxation of some ritual requirements because worship is not solely for the benefit of God, but for us.

These differences have led religious communities to respond in a variety of ways to the Covid-19 crisis. In mid-March, for example, thousands of Muslim pilgrims from across Asia gathered in Gowa, South Sulawesi, for a five-day Ijtima (Islamic congregation). Event organiser Tablighi Jama’at, a global movement of evangelical Muslims that promotes proselytising (dakwah), resisted government calls to cancel the event over fears that such a large gathering could fuel the spread of coronavirus. Organisers finally agreed to close the event on 18 March after at least 8,500 people had gathered in the area.

The next day, thousands also gathered on the island of Flores in East Nusa Tenggara, at an ordination ceremony for a Catholic bishop, despite similar calls from authorities to avoid mass gatherings.

These were two very busy days for the authorities.

The usual categories of “radicalism” and “moderation” are not sufficient to explain the differences in religious communities’ responses to Covid-19. Following Saudi Arabia’s decision to close the two holy mosques to foreigners on 26 February, Indonesian Salafis agreed to worship at home.

Even the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), notorious for its militancy in demanding strict adherence to shari’a requirements, discouraged public gatherings long before the so-called large scale social restrictions (PSBB) were enacted in major cities, beginning with Jakarta on 10 April.

The three most prominent Islamic organisations in Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have now all issued religious rulings (or fatwa) ordering followers to avoid mass gatherings at mosques. But many mosques in Aceh, West Sumatra, West Nusa Tenggara, West Java and East Java are still holding regular Friday prayers, as well as tarawih prayers (additional prayers performed at night during Ramadan).

Crucially, some of the religious leaders (kiai and ustadz) arguing for the right to organise and lead mass prayers belong to Nahdlatul Ulama, which is usually considered progressive in its stand against radicalism. These religious leaders argue that they have already applied government protocols at the mosques, by providing hand sanitiser and disinfectant, cleaning the walls and carpets, and asking people to stand at more than one metre apart during prayer.

Is this enough? The government says no, because of the possibility of asymptomatic people transmitting the virus without realising in enclosed places where people gather.

The crucial point is that rituals and traditions involving mass gatherings are almost inseparable from Ramadan. From tarawih, to tadarus (readings of the Qur’an), i’tikaf (a period of remaining in the mosque), pengajian (Islamic study), mudik (people returning to their home villages), to shaking hands during halal bi halal (meetings to celebrate the end of Ramadan), all involve crowds of people.

It is true that some of these activities, like pengajian and tadarus, can be conducted online. Others, such as tarawih, may be conducted at home, but many Muslims find this less than ideal. Some activities, however, can only be conducted at mosques, like i’tikaf. This devotion is not compulsory, only recommended, but under normal circumstances, mosques would be full of people performing i’tikaf during the final 10 days of Ramadan.

Last week, the government officially banned mudik This was a good move, but it was made too late. Regardless of the ban, it will not be easy to discourage about 20 million people from returning to their home villages at the end of Ramadan. It is an annual tradition.

It is overly simplistic to label those who defy government and religious recommendations on physical distancing at places of worship as radicals or extremists. Likewise, it is unwise to label all believers who choose to worship at home as moderates. Different categories are needed, categories more suitable for use during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Returning to the question of the purpose or benefits of worship, the Covid-19 crisis suggests that God is not only present in places of worship. Rather, more profoundly, it may be that He is located in the hearts of believers, even if they worship Him in their own homes.