Islamic figures reject fatwa of ulemas against yoga and smoking
by Mathias Hariyadi
Religious leaders and representatives of society call the directives "unconstitutional and unnecessary," because they risk destroying the idea of "national unity." In the past, the council of the ulemas has issued controversial edicts, contrary to pluralism.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - "Unconstitutional and unnecessary." This is the view expressed by various Muslim religious leaders and members of civil society, on the fatwas issued by the Indonesian ulemas against the practice of yoga, the vice of smoking, and abstention from voting.

On January 25, 700 members of the Indonesian council of ulemas, meeting for an assembly in Padang Panjang, a city in the province of West Sumatra, issued a fatwa against yoga, smoking, and abstention from voting, explaining that all of these are "activities contrary to the precepts of Islam."

The statement from the ulemas has unleashed a wave of protest in the country: smoking is dangerous to the health, but this is a choice that belongs to the private sphere of the individual, and should not be regulated with a religious edict. The situation is similar for yoga, which should be considered a means for releasing stress and tension for many Indonesians living in large urban areas. Indonesian Muslims, both religious and lay figures, therefore maintain that the directives of the ulemas are "unnecessary and contrary to the constitution," threatening the idea of "national unity" and the concept of a pluralistic society.

"What mainly concerns me is the potential threat that these fatwas would be imposed on all Indonesian citizens, no matter what their religion," says Fadjroel Rachman, a Muslim political activist, echoing the statements of Indonesia's vice president, Jusuf Kalla, who has warned the ulemas not to issue "controversial" fatwas capable of "undermining national unity."

Criticism is also coming from the two main moderate Muslim organizations in the country, the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, which call the pronouncements "unnecessary" and destined to be "ignored" by the majority of citizens. In reference to the position of the ulemas on smoking, Hasyim Muzadi – president of the Nahdlatul Ulama - stresses that it would be more correct to define the vice of smoking as "makruh,"which means "bad" or "to be discouraged," rather than "illicit."

Formed in 1975 by former president Suharto, the council of the ulemas has repeatedly provoked controversy among Indonesian Muslims. It enjoys the support of Muslims who are close to the fundamentalist fringe of the country, and has issued a series of controversial edicts, including the banning of interreligious prayers and mixed marriages, in addition to campaigns against religious pluralism, liberalism, and state secularism.