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Indonesians ignore religious edicts against smoking, yoga

Although Indonesia is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, many view Islamic clerics' fatwas as anachronistic and unnecessary.

February 06, 2009|Paul Watson

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Indonesia's most powerful Islamic scholars weren't looking for a debate when they handed down their latest fatwas on how to be a good Muslim.

But they still got an argument and, perhaps worse, a chorus of "Who cares?" after decreeing that it is haram, or forbidden, to smoke in public, or for children and pregnant women to have a puff of tobacco anywhere.

It didn't matter that the clerics were providing sound health guidance. The council of clerics that interprets Sharia, or Islamic law, for the world's largest Muslim population often leaves many shrugging their shoulders in confusion or disbelief.

When about 700 members of the council handed down a fresh list of fatwas last week, they included ones on marriage to minors, cornea donations and yoga. As usual, most Indonesians blithely ignored the rulings.

Unlike more fundamentalist Islamic cultures such as Iran, where fatwas can be a life-or-death matter, most people in this overwhelmingly Muslim country of 237 million pay little attention because the edicts usually have little to do with what really matters to them, said Rumadi, a lecturer at an Islamic state university here.

"If a fatwa can't be seen as solving a problem, it will only create more problems," added the lecturer, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

Fatwas don't have the force of law in Indonesia, which is officially a secular society that protects the rights of non-Muslim minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. With that in mind, many Indonesian Muslims view the Council of Ulema's judgments as unnecessary, often anachronistic meddling in their personal lives.

One of the latest fatwas approved of men marrying child brides, as long as their motives are good. Islam doesn't set a minimum age for marriage, the council declared, adding that "early marriage" is prohibited if "it is only for pleasure."

As the country's emerging democracy gains strength, so have the council's detractors, who like many people here in Jakarta, the capital, wish the Islamic scholars would just butt out.

Days after the anti-smoking fatwa made national headlines, Jakarta's air is still pungent with the sweet scent of Indonesians' favorite smoke: clove cigarettes called kreteks because of the soft crackling sound the 19th century originals made as flecks of spice burned. Near high schools across the city, whether Muslim madrasas or secular public schools, hawkers were happily selling single cigarettes to crowds of kids.

Battered by waves of bad economic news, the government appeared relieved that the fatwa seemed to have little effect on the craving for cigarettes in a country that has the world's fifth-largest population of smokers. Tobacco taxes bring more than $4 billion into the treasury each year, and the head of customs and excise estimated that revenue could drop 10% if people followed the fatwa.

What's lucrative for the tax man is lethal for many smokers: About 200,000 Indonesians die each year from tobacco-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization.

To some Indonesians, the council crossed a democratic line with a fatwa that said a Muslim shouldn't abstain from voting. Opponents insist that voters have the right not to cast ballots in this summer's national elections.

The Jakarta Post defiantly said in a headline, "Do I go to hell if I don't vote? Hell, no!"

The council tried to ease any fears among electoral abstainers, who make up at least 40% of voter rolls in local elections, saying the fatwa is merely helpful advice.

The council was set up in 1975 by President Suharto, who, after seizing power in a military coup a decade earlier, drew support from Islamic parties that liked his tough anti-communist stand.

Suharto tolerated moderate Muslim leaders, particularly those who supported him, while banning radical Islamic parties.

The dozens of Suharto-era fatwas were easily ignored. The first batch in 1976 included instructions on how to perform Friday prayers in a boat, and told government officials to live modestly, an unlikely proposition in Suharto's graft-laden bureaucracy.

Seven years later, the clerics defined proper praying in a two-story mosque, forbade the eating of rabbit meat and prohibited the singing of Koranic verses. More food edicts followed against dining on frogs, worms, crickets and crabs.

The council behaved "just like a [trained] seal" under Suharto, said Novriantoni Kahar, program manager for the Liberal Islam Network.

Yet even after gaining more authority over interpretation of Sharia, the clerics still have a credibility problem, Kahar said.

"People criticize the [council] for issuing an ineffective fatwa," Kahar said. "Well, it should be ineffective. By issuing ineffective fatwas, we know that its role is insignificant."

Still, there is increasing friction between liberal and conservative Muslims, and between Muslims and minority religious groups, as hard-line Muslims press for changes that most Indonesians view as excessive.

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