In the name of Allah, most gracious and merciful, I steal

Before performing any deed, a good Muslim would say "In the name of Allah, most gracious and most merciful" — either to make sure that he or she is not committing an act of sin, or asking God to show mercy in case a sin is committed. But would a Muslim say that before stealing, ...


Before performing any deed, a good Muslim would say "In the name of Allah, most gracious and most merciful" — either to make sure that he or she is not committing an act of sin, or asking God to show mercy in case a sin is committed. But would a Muslim say that before stealing, too? The bad ones probably do.

The Muslim politicians and bureaucrats involved in the latest scandal over the procurement of a Quran, no doubt would have said bismillah (in the name of God). But while they may believe God will be merciful, don’t expect the public to be so forgiving.

In Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, you don’t go any lower than stealing in the name of God.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has named Zulkarnaen Djabar, a Golkar Party member of the House of Representatives, and his son as suspects in the scandal. It’s possible, though, that the case may soon expand to include more suspects.

Zulkarnaen, a member of the House’s Budget Committee and Commission VIII (which deals with religious and social affairs), played an active role in pushing the House to approve hefty increases in the budget allocated for the government’s program to procure Qurans. Zulkarnaen had a personal interest in the project: His son, Dendi Prasetya, got the lucrative contract to supply Qurans to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Other Commission VIII members have since confessed that they each received over 500 copies of the Quran from the Ministry. None of them saw this as a kickback for securing the budget increases. Some claimed they were simply helping the Ministry to distribute Qurans (no doubt to appease voters before the 2014 elections).

Others claimed that the free, government-distributed Qurans would help promote moderation and tolerance in Islam as part of the campaign to fight radicalism. This claim has been refuted by an Islamic group that found that the government-issued Qurans carry translations that promote violence and radicalism.

At a cost of Rp 1 million ($106) each, these volumes of the Holy Book must be among the most expensive Qurans ever found in Indonesia.

Public reaction to the news has been largely muted — primarily because no one was really that surprised. It’s not the first time that God’s name has been corrupted. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has already earned a reputation as one of the most corrupt state institutions, according to a Corruption Eradication Survey conducted in 2011.

Rather than a fortress of morality, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has long since become a bastion of hypocrisy.

To many bureaucrats and politicians, God has become a commercial project, whether it’s procuring Qurans, or dispatching a huge Indonesian delegation to the haj pilgrimage in Mecca, the most lucrative of all government projects. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has jealously guarded this project in spite of repeated calls to leave it to an independent agency that would subject it to closer scrutiny to ensure better management.

Indonesia sends more than 200,000 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia each year, the largest contingent from any country. As far as business goes, this is a captive market over which the government holds a monopoly. The ministry rakes in huge profits from the project, and it now sits atop a $4 billion endowment.

The temptation is just too big. One former minister of religious affairs, Said Agil Husin Al Munawar, went to jail in 2006 for taking money from the haj fund.

The appointment this month of Anggito Abimanyu, a respected economist and financial expert, as director general of haj affairs has been welcomed in many quarters. The assumption is that he will know what to do with the large endowment. But it also confirms the public view that the government treats the pilgrimage as nothing more than a commercial project. Instead of improving efficiency of service, it is aiming to squeezing more profit out of the fund.

Sending more than 200,000 pilgrims to Mecca is a huge undertaking, and each year the Ministry of Religious Affairs is criticized for the breakdown in some of its services. Indonesian pilgrims spend the longest time in Saudi Arabia — 38 days — compared to two weeks for pilgrims from other countries. The government defends the policy by saying the extra days allow pilgrims to pray more in the holy land and earn bonus blessings from God.

The waiting time to go on the pilgrimage can be as long as five years, and everyone has to pay in advance, with the accrued interest pocketed by the government. But it turns out, apparently, that you can cut the line and depart this year, but spend only two or three weeks, if you pay a lot more. Access to Allah apparently depends on the color of your money. No one can accuse the ministry of lacking entrepreneurship. They saw an opportunity, and they are profiting from it.

The haj project involves many commercial interests, both in Indonesia and in Saudi Arabia, that include airlines, hotels, catering companies, guides, souvenirs, and paraphernalia. But while the largesse is distributed among these different commercial interests, there is no doubt that government takes the lion share.

The latest Quran procurement scandal pales in comparison. Making money from God, legally or otherwise, seems perfectly acceptable to those who earn their living this way, including politicians and bureaucrats.

Let us just hope that they also never forget to sing praises and say Alhamdullilah when the deed is done. Who knows, perhaps God will forgive them after all.


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