The Wall Street Journal
Why are Indonesian clerics bent out of shape over yoga?
By SADANAND DHUME
For those who wonder what problems corruption-ridden and disaster-plagued Indonesia must tackle most urgently, the Indonesian Council of Ulema has the answer: yoga.
On Monday, the Council, a quasi-official grouping of 700 Islamic clerics, decreed that Muslims should shun the ancient Indian practice. The clerics worry that Hindu-influenced chants and invocations might weaken Muslim believers’ faith. The decree, though not legally binding, carries the force of moral authority, and, as is not uncommon in the Muslim world, the unspoken threat of enforcement by vigilantes.
The Council’s decision was not entirely unprecedented. Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council issued a similar ban last November. Nonetheless, it comes as a reminder of the challenges the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country faces as it struggles to nurture a fledgling democracy in the face of the increasingly undemocratic demands of fundamentalist Islam.
To be sure, Indonesia is no Saudi Arabia. The majority of the country’s Muslims — 88% of its 235 million people — practice a gentle folk Islam infused with elements of the archipelago’s long Animist-Hindu-Buddhist past. The country’s constitution is nonsectarian. Overt legal discrimination against non-Muslims, the cornerstone of government policy in neighboring Malaysia, is rare. Most people live in harmony.
But in recent years, Indonesian fundamentalists — including hardline clerics, politicians from the Prosperous Justice Party and vigilante groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front — have grown increasingly assertive. These groups don’t always agree with each other on tactics, but have broadly similar worldviews. They have spearheaded the persecution of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the passage of a so-called antipornography bill that encourages vigilantism and discriminates against non-Muslim cultures, and a regulation that forces Christian schools to offer religious instruction on Islam.
Put bluntly, Islamic fundamentalism puts a crimp on Indonesia’s otherwise impressive democratic flowering. It’s at odds with individual rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. In a mature democracy, you wouldn’t find a government body called the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society outside the pages of a novel. In Indonesia, it helps the government determine which groups are labeled “heretical” or “deviant.”
After two successful national elections since the end of Suharto’s 32-year-reign in 1998 — and with another due this year — Indonesians are justifiably proud of having mastered the processes of democracy. But the gains may be chimerical unless they can defend their ability to publicly scrutinize, criticize — and, if necessary, mock — bad ideas that come from Islam as readily as those drawn from a political manifesto.
Since the 1970s, Indonesian Islam has been stripped of its legendary tolerance toward other faiths by a combination of rapid urbanization, compulsory religious education in government schools, and the efforts of Middle Eastern and homegrown purifiers of the faith. In recent years, this Arabization of Indonesian Islam has gathered pace as globalization has brought the religious and political discourse (often indistinguishable from each other) of Riyadh and Tehran to Jakarta. Reminded daily that they are recipients of God’s final revelation, a large minority of Muslims — perhaps between 10% and 15% — embrace the fundamentalist notion that the cause of their backwardness lies not in a failure to embrace modernity but in a failure to fully embrace their faith. Many more, while not full-blown fundamentalists themselves, are broadly sympathetic to these ideas.
Indonesia’s fundamentalists have shown themselves to be better motivated and better organized than their opponents. Weak or sympathetic politicians (including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono), courts and police allow them to use violence or the threat of violence to control the public square — by driving Playboy magazine out of Jakarta, or by attacking secular nationalists at a high-profile rally for religious freedom. Meanwhile cultural norms put any public criticism of Islam out of bounds. Hardliners can be chided for distorting the faith, but an unspoken code of self-censorship ensures that no one ever questions the faith itself. The kind of robust debate between believers and unbelievers that marks most democracies is notable for its absence in Indonesia.
To put this in perspective, consider that Indians are free to debate the caste-centered and sexist aspects of Hindu scripture. The Spaniard who believes in contraception and gay rights can flatly declare that he doesn’t care what the Bible says or what the Pope thinks. But an Indonesian who publicly expresses similar sentiments about the Quran or the prophet Muhammad immediately invites threats of violence.
This constrained national discourse cedes fundamentalists the moral high ground, a crucial advantage in this battle of ideas. Unless Indonesians can find a way to broaden the debate, to allow purely secular and even antireligious arguments to set up stall in the public square, they should not be surprised to find themselves in a land where clerics set the agenda, both in yoga class and outside it.
Mr. Dhume is a Washington-based writer and the author of “My Friend the Fanatic: Travels With a Radical Islamist” (Skyhorse Publishing, May 2009).