The Edict that Never Was

There has been a spate of coverage in the Indonesian press about Muslim clerics. Facebook, mobile phones and the dangers of sex. The only thing missing is violence, otherwise it would make a good movie.

The Indonesian language Indra Harsaputra reported that 1,700 clerics of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organization, had "issued an edict banning communication between sexes using mobile phones and online social networks such as Facebook," according to the Jakarta Post on May 23.

An Ulama spokesman, Abdul Muid Shohib, reportedly said communication using mobile phones was prone to adultery. Indonesian Ulema Council East Java Chairman Abdussomad Buchori acknowledged he had no idea about online social networking but would support an edict if it prevented adultery. However, Shohib went on to say that "The MUI would never ban internet use provided it is for learning or information seeking purposes".

There is a famous line in the classic novel (and movie) The Third Man where the hero, Holly Martin, is confronted in an army education class literary discussion in occupied post-war Vienna by a gangster who does not want him to finish a book about a fatal accident. Because it was not an accident and the man who died in it was not dead, but trying to escape the police. The gangster asked Martin, who had said he did not yet know the ending of his book, "Is it not dangerous to mix fact and fiction? "

While the best novels are often based at least partly on fact, despite the disclaimer that they are fiction, hard newspaper news is supposed to be based on fact, and not partly on fiction. So if we go back one day to The Jakarta Post of May 22, we see the front-page headline "Indonesian clerics want rules for Facebook" and a byline to Associated Press. Here we read that 700 clerics were "considering guidelines" that might forbid their followers to go online "to flirt or engage in practices they believe could encourage extramarital affairs".

A much more reasonable scenario, pointing out that 4 percent of global Facebook users are in Indonesia, the biggest user after the US, the UK, France and Italy, with 831,000 Indonesian users.

But by the Saturday 23rd May the 700 clerics of the NU had become 1,700 and they had issued an edict.

However lo and behold by Monday 25th May the weekend was over and the game was up. The edict was shot down, but the damage was done.

Irawaty Wardany now reported in The Jakarta Post that the Chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Amidhan, keeps an eye on his grandchildren's´ Facebook accounts. However whilst he respects the views of the East Java NU Ulemas and says it would be valid to ban pornographic content, he regards Facebook itself as a neutral media.

Nabil Haroen of the Lirboyo Islamic boarding school which hosted the meeting of clerics said the results were "recommendations". Halim Mahfudz of the NU says the meeting was to look at possible regulations and NU would consider its results.

The Monday Jakarta Post report then confirmed "Religious edicts, even from the MUI, are not legally binding." So when is an edict not an edict? An edict is not an edict when you admit those accused of issuing one had no right to do so, and never claimed it.

This was the story of the edict that never was. This will not help bridge the gap between clerics and society, but widen it. The Muslim mass organizations in Indonesia are weakened by party politics and by rapid economic and social change around them, to which they must adapt. They need to rethink their role in modern society. The press must surely defend the freedoms of society. But it must also be fair to its stakeholders, including clerics, and not misrepresent them, but encourage a real dialogue.

Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking. © Copyright Cooperation for Development (Europe)