Islamic council’s fatwas divide Indonesia

February 28th, 2009 - 11:25 am ICT by IANS  

Jakarta, Feb 28 (DPA) A series of religious edicts issued by Indonesia’s council of Muslim scholars has triggered controversy, exposing sharp divisions between conservatives and liberals in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

In January, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning Muslims from practising yoga that includes Hindu rituals, such as chanting.

It also ruled smoking in public and abstaining from electoral voting are sinful.

The rulings, which are not legally binding, sparked criticism from some Indonesians who worried about their implications on human rights and democratic freedom with some critics going further by suggesting that the government disband the council.

The council has been criticised for fatwas issued in 2005 declaring that liberalism and secularism are against Islamic tenets and that the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect is heretical because it does not recognize Muhammad as the last of the prophets.

The fatwa on Ahmadiyya has been blamed for a series of attacks on the property and followers of the sect by fundamentalist Muslims.

The council has defended its edicts, saying its job is to provide guidance to Muslims on issues of public concern.

“It’s obvious there are Muslims who don’t understand religious laws, and they need fatwas on issues that are not clearly stated in the Koran,” said Amidhan, a council deputy chairman who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

But some liberal observers said they believe the fatwas are a threat to the country’s reputation as a tolerant nation that respects diversity.

Muhammad Syafi’i Anwar, executive director of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism, said the edicts showed that the council was aligning with groups that seek to impose shariat, or Islamic law, in Indonesia.

“This is part of creeping ’shariaization’, but I’m optimistic they won’t go very far,” Anwar said. “I believe the media is critical.”

The council and other groups representing followers of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism were set up by the government of former dictator Suharto as part of his efforts to maintain religious harmony and his grip on power.

The council is not a government institution and is funded by public donations, but under Suharto’s rule, which ended in 1998 amid widespread unrest, the council’s fatwas tended to toe the government line.

“The MUI is trying to assert its power because it was only a rubber-stamp institution during the Suharto era,” Anwar said “They have more influence, thanks to the backing of groups that promote conservative agendas.”

The overwhelming majority of Indonesia’s 190 million Muslims are moderate, but a vocal Islamist minority has been clamouring for the imposition of shariat.

Fachry Ali, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia, said he did not believe the council had ambitions beyond what it sees as religious duties.

“Yoga, for example, is problematic in the context of pure Islam, which is against all forms of idolatry,” he said. “MUI is just one of those groups seeking to purify Islam.”

“The MUI believes that the views of the liberals are not based on religious texts,” Fachry added. “It’s hard to reconcile when both sides stick to their points of departure.”

The council said Muslims could still practise yoga, which is increasingly popular among middle-class Indonesians, if they don’t use chants associated with Hinduism and treat it purely as a form of physical exercise.

The council said it fears the ancient Indian exercise could erode the faith of Muslims.

Dian Putri, who works for a media company, said she did not intend to follow the council fatwas although she does not practice yoga with chanting.

“They’re too extreme,” she said. “It’s like they’re playing God. Maybe those fatwas are useful for religious Muslims, but for more liberal ones, sometimes their statements are disturbing.”

But Henri Basel, a teacher, said he supported the council.

“People criticise the fatwas without reading them in their entirety,” he said. “Of course, people can choose not to follow the fatwas if they also have sound religious reasonings, but there’s no point in making a fuss about it.”

“Those so-called liberals have access to the media like newspapers, TV and the Internet, but the majority of Indonesians don’t necessarily agree with them,” he said.

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