In Indonesia, Many Eyes Follow Money for Hajj
Kemal Jufri for The New York Times
Employees at a travel agency in Jakarta that specializes in Hajj pilgrimage
packages. About 1.2 million Indonesians are on a waiting list to travel to
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: August 5, 2010
JAKARTA, Indonesia - As the nation with the world's largest number of Muslims,
Indonesia every year sends the most pilgrims to Mecca by far. About one out of
10 believers who performed the hajj last year were Indonesian.
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Kemal Jufri for The New York Times
"Maybe at the beginning, it was really about the religion," said Ian Imron, a
travel agency owner until 2006. "But then it became more about business."
Some 1.2 million of the faithful are now on a government waiting list to go to
Mecca, filling this country's annual quota through the next six years. But if
the rapidly lengthening list is a testament to Indonesia's growing devotion, it
has also become a source of one of its perennial problems: corruption.
Government officials and politicians misuse the money deposited by those on the
waiting list - now totaling nearly $2.4 billion - according to government
investigators and anti-corruption groups. With friendly travel agents and
business allies, officials exploit the myriad requirements of the state-run
hajj to fatten their own pockets, watchdog groups say. Corruption, they say,
has contributed to consistent complaints about cramped accommodations for
pilgrims in Saudi Arabia and catering services that stop delivering food midway
through the trip.
The national Parliament and officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs
recently settled on the price of this year's hajj after unusually protracted
negotiations and accusations, widely reported in the news media here, that some
lawmakers and bureaucrats had agreed to share $2.8 million in bribes from the
ministry. The annual negotiations are used by veteran bureaucrats and lawmakers
to hammer out personal deals, according to anti-corruption groups and the news
media, which have labeled them the "hajj mafia."
"We can't prove the existence of the hajj mafia yet," said Muhammad Baghowi, a
lawmaker who was elected last year and sits on a parliamentary commission that
oversees religious affairs. "But given all the indications, you can really
Parliamentary leaders and ministry officials have denied the bribery
accusations. Abdul Ghafur Djawahir, a high-ranking official at the ministry's
hajj division, said anti-corruption groups had misinterpreted the ministry's
procedures and handling of the deposit money. He said they had also wrongly
evaluated the costs of flights to Saudi Arabia and unfairly compared
Indonesia's hajj management with that of Malaysia, where pilgrims are reported
to pay less and get better service.
"That's what, in the end, forms the public's opinion that there is huge
corruption here," Mr. Djawahir said, adding that there was "no hajj mafia" and
that the ministry was "completely clean."
Ministry officials and lawmakers pointed out that the price for this year's
hajj, which is scheduled for mid-November, had been lowered by $80 to $3,342,
compared with last year. But anti-corruption groups argue that without graft
and mismanagement the cost would be several hundred dollars lower.
Despite the convictions in 2006 of ministry officials, including a former
minister, for misusing hajj funds and bribing state auditors to validate the
ministry's accounts, anti-corruption advocates say that little has changed.
According to Indonesian Corruption Watch, in the deal-making between the
ministry and Parliament, lawmakers win hefty allowances on hajj trips for
themselves and their relatives, and travel agencies and other businesses with
political ties are handed contracts for catering or transportation. In return,
lawmakers do not question the ministry's handling of the $2.4 billion in
deposits, especially the accrued interest.
"What the money is used for, we never know," said Ade Irawan, a researcher at
Indonesian Corruption Watch, the country's leading private anti-corruption
organization. "That's the people's money, public money, the pilgrims' money."
The Indonesian Pilgrims Rabithah, a private organization that has long pressed
for reform of the hajj management, said the ministry and lawmakers negotiated
away from public forums to keep their deals hidden.
"There is never any public accountability," said Ade Marfuddin, the
organization's chairman, adding, "No one knows who gets what except them."
In a recent report, the Corruption Eradication Commission, the government's
main anti-corruption agency, identified 48 practices in hajj management that
could lead to corruption. Mochammad Jasin, a deputy chairman of the commission,
said the commission would wait to see whether the ministry carried out
suggested reforms before considering a full-fledged investigation into possible
According to quotas established by Saudi authorities, 211,000 Indonesians will
be allowed to go to Mecca this year. About 17,000 of them will go on private
tours costing several times the state-run package of $3,342 - a sum that often
entails a lifetime of savings and the sale of property or livestock.
Unable to afford the state-run hajj, Arif Supardi, 53, entered Saudi Arabia on
a business visa shortly before the hajj a couple of years ago. (The Saudi
government estimated that 30 percent of the 2.5 million pilgrims last year went
to Mecca without valid permits.) He said he managed to complete his pilgrimage
for $2,000 by becoming what he and others called "hajj backpackers."
"There were many from Indonesia, mostly because of the cost," he said.
Prospective pilgrims must now deposit $2,500 to register for the hajj,
effectively lending the ministry that amount until their turn to go on the hajj
comes up six years later. According to the religion ministry, between 15,000
and 20,000 people register every month. Interest in performing the hajj, a
pilgrimage that is an obligation for any physically and financially able Muslim
adult, has risen in the past decade as Indonesians have grown wealthier and
increasingly given Islam an important place in their lives.
But Ian Imron, 38, who owned a travel agency offering private hajj tours from
1988 to 2006, said the growing interest also led to an overemphasis on the
business side of the hajj. Travel agencies with political ties and large
capital have mushroomed. When he ran into financial difficulties in 2006, Mr.
Imron took it as a sign to quit the business.
"Maybe at the beginning, it was really about religion," Mr. Imron said. "But
then it became more about business."
In a wealthy neighborhood in southern Jakarta, Al Amin Universal travel agency
boasts that it has taken prominent politicians on the hajj on private tours.
Employees at the agency said its owners - the family of Melani Suharli, the
deputy speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly, a legislative branch -
were unavailable to talk.
Despite the widely reported poor service on the state-run trips, most pilgrims
do not complain as ministry officials warn them that airing grievances will mar
their religious experience, anti-corruption groups said.
Achmad Fachin, 50, who sold his family car to go to Mecca with his wife, said
he did not complain during their hajj but has grown angry about the corruption.
"But, in the end, let them be," he said. "They'll have to take responsibility
for whatever they do. We were performing our religious duty and paid the fees
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.
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