JAKARTA — In a sign of its growing prominence, Indonesia’s Council of Ulemas moved its headquarters from the basement of a major mosque here into an expensive new office tower in the heart of downtown.
The council was established in 1975 as a quasi-governmental body of Muslim scholars by Suharto, the country’s leader for three decades, partly as a tool to keep politically minded Islamic organizations in check. But in the decade since the dictator’s fall, the group — whose leaders have increasingly espoused a radical form of Islam — has worked to establish itself as an assertive political force.
The group, known as M.U.I., built an impressive network of offices throughout the country, staffed by people who promote the council’s view of Islam. It logged its first major political success this summer when the government agreed to severely restrict the activities of a Muslim sect that does not believe that Muhammad was the last prophet.
Advocates of religious tolerance worry that the council’s new clout could signal the start of religious radicalization in a country known for its moderate brand of Islam.
“Islamists use the M.U.I. as a major base of operations, coordinating support for the Islamist agenda,” said Holland Taylor, founder of LibForAll Foundation, an American and Indonesian nongovernmental group that promotes religious pluralism.
Among the goals of some prominent council members is the imposition of Shariah, or Islamic law, throughout traditionally secular Indonesia.
But other experts, even some concerned about the council’s conservative leanings and newfound influence, see the broader radicalization of Indonesian Islam as unlikely. They point out that Indonesia’s largest Islamic association, the Nahdlatul Ulama, promotes tolerance and religious pluralism and that Islamic political parties have struggled to gain ground in recent years.
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