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Indonesian clerics flex political muscles
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia this year may hinge on how the public reacts to a directive from the country's top Islamic council that all Muslims must vote or risk going to hell.
The controversial edict from the Indonesian Council of Ulama, which consists of elected clerics and scholars, does not state which parties or candidates voters should choose.
But it may encourage Muslims to vote for Islamist candidates and push the country away from secularism toward a more socially rigid government -- not necessarily a plus for foreign investors.
"It's in the interests of some MUI members to maximise the votes of various Islamic parties," said Greg Fealy, an expert in Indonesian politics and Islam at the Australian National University.
Indonesia's plethora of political parties mean relatively small shifts among voters could potentially determine which groups form alliances in the April 9 general election and which field candidates in the presidential election in July.
A recent poll shows reform-minded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party in the lead with 23 percent support, but he may still need to turn to some of the small Islamist parties or his current ally Golkar to form a coalition.
At this stage, 20-30 percent of those polled are still undecided.
PUSHING ISLAMIST AGENDA
Officially secular, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, about 85 percent of its 226 million people.
Most are moderates, but some of the small, hardline groups, which are represented in MUI, have pushed Islamist agendas, undermining Indonesia's reputation for tolerance and threatening some of its religious and ethnic minorities.
"What is MUI these days, religious body or party?", said Adhitya Wisena, a Muslim who works at a fish shop in Jakarta.
Under MUI's influence last year, the government imposed restrictions on an Islamic sect, Ahmadiyya, and pushed ahead with a controversial anti-pornography law that some minorities, including Bali's Hindus and Papua's Christians, consider a threat to their art and culture.
Several districts in Indonesia have introduced sharia bylaws, for instance requiring women to wear headscarves regardless of their faith.
Islamists are also likely to have economic nationalist and protectionist views, which despite their own ostensibly liberal tendencies Yudhoyono and his predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri have already had a tough time resisting.
Set up by former president Suharto in 1975 in an attempt to control political Islam, part of MUI's role was to endorse government policies such as family planning.
But with Suharto's ouster in 1998 and a shift towards greater democracy and freedom of expression, MUI has grown in political importance and is increasingly influenced by conservatives and hardliners within its ranks.
"Although MUI says it has representatives from all major Muslim organisations, there is a disproportionate influence by some small conservative, Islamist groups," said Fealy, the Indonesian expert at Australian National University.
"That partly explains some of the decisions we have seen on Ahmadiyya (and) the anti-porno bill."
Fealy said MUI's influence on public policy was likely to grow, as Indonesia's economy becomes more "Islamicised", for example with the increasing importance of Islamic financing and the business of certifying food as halal, or allowed, in Islam.
"All the halal certification is managed by MUI and that generates a lot of revenue from companies who want their product certified," he said.
"Islamic banks, Islamic insurance companies, Islamic pawn shops all have religious scholars advising them and more often than not they are from MUI. In reality, this is very lucrative for them."
YOGA AND SMOKING
MUI's fatwa -- a legally nonbinding moral decree -- requiring all Muslims to vote is not the council's first attempt to influence an election outcome.
In 1999, MUI ordered Muslims to vote for Muslim candidates, a deliberate strike against Megawati and her PDI-P party, among Indonesia's most secular and which then had a high proportion of non-Muslim officials.
It has put pressure on the government to pursue pro-Islam policies, and issued fatwas against liberalism and pluralism, and on lifestyle, health and social issues.
At its national fatwa council meeting in January, MUI banned yoga for Muslims if it involved Hindu chants and meditation, and said it was sinful to smoke in public, and for children and pregnant women to smoke.
But it refrained from banning under-age marriage, despite a recent public outcry when a cleric married a 12-year-old girl.
The expanding number of controversial fatwas is of increasing concern for many of Indonesia's elite, religious minorities, and Muslim moderates.
"The edicts are out of date, pointless, and counterproductive for the interests of the nation," wrote M. Syafi'i Anwar, executive director of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) in an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post.
(Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh)
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