Indonesian Facebook Users Defy Clerics

by Gopalan on Jul 6 2009 7:41 PM

Mosques may outnumber Internet cafes in Muslim-majority Indonesia, but Islamic clerics out to take on social networking site Facebook may have met their match.

Media in the world's most populous Muslim country were abuzz after a May meeting of hundreds of clerics from Java and Bali islands urged top religious authorities to issue a fatwa, or edict, banning Facebook for Muslims.

The clerics have argued the site enables unregulated chatting between the sexes, opening the door for "obscenity," pornography, premarital sex and adultery.

Fatwas from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country's highest religious body, are in theory binding on Muslims but in practice they are often ignored.

"Facebook is like a magnet that attracts people to join," the cleric who headed the meeting, Abdul Muid Sohib, told AFP.

"Many use it simply for chatting, but Islam restricts the relationship between men and women... not only for face-to-face contact but also for Facebook, since it too could lead to sexual intimacy.

"We all know that some Facebook users use it to offer themselves for prostitution," he said.

Clerics hoping their call could make an impact may be a little disappointed with the response.

Indonesia ranks fifth behind the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and France in terms of Facebook use, according to Internet tracking website, in spite of a patchy communications infrastructure and little computer access for many of its 234 million people.

Discussion groups ranging in topics from politics to Japanese animation and homosexuality in the national language Bahasa Indonesia dot the website.

Tens of thousands of Indonesians have signed up to Facebook groups condemning the clerics' call, including at least one prominent Muslim member of parliament.

Niken Valentina, a 19-year-old student who lists her religion on Facebook as Muslim and her interests as "eating, swimming, hanging out with my gurlz, my phone," is one of many who have reacted with derision to the ban.

"It all depends on the person using it," said Valentina, whose posted photos document a social life of meals, clubbing and pouty poses with girlfriends.

"If you want to flirt or find pornographic stuff you can use (search engine) Google too, not only Facebook," she said.

For 36-year-old Facebook user Intan Ruwaidah, the cleric's call is a sign that many in Indonesia's Islamic establishment are out of touch.

"If these clerics think Facebook is a venue for flirting, it shows they have no idea about what they want to ban," Ruwaidah said.

"I don't think Facebook users will listen to this. The clerics are turning into toothless tigers," she said.

Indonesians exasperated by the push to ban Facebook can point to a series of fatwas issued by the senior clerics of the MUI that have strained the body's credibility, said Ahmad Suaedy from the Wahid Institute Islamic think tank.

The MUI earlier this year issued one widely derided edict banning Muslims from practising yoga if they mix the exercises with elements of Hindu ritual.

The clerics also issued a fatwa banning public smoking -- a quixotic gesture in nicotine-mad Indonesia -- and ruled that abstaining from voting in national elections was haram, or forbidden to Muslims.

While clerics could have counted on a captive audience during the reign of dictator Suharto, the rise of democracy and the proliferation of media since his 1998 fall means many Indonesians today are too sophisticated, Suaedy said.

"Indonesian Muslims were very obedient to the MUI's edicts during Suharto's dictatorship," Suaedy said.

"But with all the freedom of expression now, they're just laughing at this."

There are signs however that the MUI has learnt from the criticism. The body has refused to say whether it will issue a formal fatwa banning Facebook.

Other senior Muslim leaders, such as the head of the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah Islamic group Din Syamsuddin, have said they oppose a ban.

Recent news in Indonesia has also shown that those who try to tame the Facebook juggernaught can end up getting hurt themselves.

A hospital on the outskirts of Jakarta recently suffered a public relations disaster when it took a mother-of-two to court on criminal defamation charges after emails she wrote to friends about poor treatment ended up on the website.

Prita Mulyasari, 32, was cleared by a court in June after spending three weeks in detention amid public outrage and a call from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the court to be lenient.

Facebook groups set up in support of her drew more than 100,000 members.