As Indonesians Go to Mecca, Many Eyes Follow Their Money

As Indonesians Go to Mecca, Many Eyes Follow Their Money

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 Mecca.
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 sense it.”

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 wrongdoing.

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