Indonesia's Fatwa Against Yoga

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Lukman S Bintoro

A group of people practice yoga at the Bali-India Foundation in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia

Four days after the fatwa went out, students continued to fill the classrooms of Jakarta's Jakartadoyoga Studio. On Jan. 28, the influential Indonesian Ulemas Council issued a religious edict forbidding all Indonesian Muslims to practice yoga that incorporates pre-Hindu religious rituals such as meditation and chanting. And while students at the yoga studio admitted they had heard about the proclamation, which allows yoga only for the purpose of exercise or sport, they say it won't deter them from attending classes in the popular Indian practice. "Issuing a fatwa is not the way to settle a controversy — if there really is one," says Sita Resmi, a yoga student and observant Muslim. "If something endangers the public, then I understand, but this doesn't, so it doesn't make much sense to me." (See pictures of facial yoga.)

The esoteric edict is one in a string of attempts by some religious groups and parties in Indonesia to influence morality in the country — efforts that not everyone in the Muslim-majority nation appreciates. The council, which is not an official government body although it receives funding from the Ministry of Religion, has lately come under attack by moderate religious groups for a series of controversial edicts that critics say embolden radical elements in the nation. Though some of the group's religious calls have been praised — it recently issued a fatwa against smoking by minors and pregnant women — others have been more divisive, like the decree that Muslims avoid conventional banks in favor of Shari'a-based banking. Because the council's rulings are nonbinding, they are generally observed only by the nation's more conservative Muslims, but its advice is nonetheless often sought by government officials. Last year, for instance, the council played a key part in the controversial ban of the Ahmadiyah religious sect by the governor of South Sumatra. (Read "Should a Pious Muslim Practice Yoga?")

The credibility of the council was called into question earlier in January, when Transparency International Indonesia accused the institution of being one of the most frequent takers of bribes in the country, particularly in the issuance of halal stickers for food and beverage products. The Council has the sole authority to issue halal certificates — a stamp that can make or break a product in this 85% Muslim market. And while some praised the group for taking on the tobacco lobby in its antismoking efforts, the clerics fell short of banning the habit outright — not surprising in a country where cigarette companies employ tens of millions of people and are among the biggest sources of tax revenues for the government. (Read "In the Mecca of Celebrity Yoga.")

Still, the council leaders are not alone in targeting yoga as a distracting influence to good Muslims. In neighboring Malaysia, a formal ban on yoga was issued last year and is still in place, a move that many Malaysians worried would heighten religious tension in the country. "I think the fatwa was issued now because of their ties to clerics in Malaysia," suggests Hamid Basyaib of the Liberal Islam Network. Many doubt it will have much effect. "The council is trying to reassert its authority among Muslims as the guardians of Islamic belief," says Azyumardi Azra, director of graduate studies at the State Islamic University in Jakarta. "The fatwa is counterproductive because Muslims who do yoga do not feel it alters their fundamental belief in Islam."

Indeed, women like Evita Dwiandiya, another student at Jakartadoyoga, say they will continue to attend their weekly yoga classes. "This is not a mass movement or anything," says Dwiandiya, who works in Jakarta's private sector. "We'll see if anybody remembers in three months." To be sure, with national elections coming up in April and the recriminations that usually follow, yoga is unlikely to register on the long list of problems facing Indonesia as the nation moves to choosing a new group of leaders for the next five years.

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