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Back to the 7th Century

The following is an opinion piece written in response to the news that one of the country’s largest Muslim organisations issued an edict forbidding the use of Facebook and similar social networking sites and any cellular phone conversations between unmarried members of opposite sexes. Of course the edict isn’t completely unreasonable…if the communications are for the express purpose of disseminating Islamic teachings, it’s okay.

A somewhat edited and toned down version is at the moment being considered for publication by The Jakarta Globe.

To the Wayback Machine, Mr. Peabody!
Patrick Guntensperger
Jakarta, Indonesia

When an aging, once potent and commanding authority begins to fear that the days of power and glory are coming to an end, it seems to be instinctive to make a pointless, futile gesture intended to demonstrate a continued grasp on the reigns of power. One sees that in primate behaviour when a weakening silverback gorilla unnecessarily goes about bullying younger potential rivals for dominance, before lapsing back into arthritic indolence. Perhaps it is the same instinct that has inspired the clerics of Nadlatul Ulama (NU) to issue their most recent pointless, futile edict.

The latest fatuous fatwa bans mobile phone communications between members of opposite sexes and the use of online social networks such as Facebook. If the Ulema was looking for a way to underscore its lack of relevance, its hopeless detachment from the people it supposedly serves, and its refusal to confront reality, it couldn’t have found a better one. This is Indonesia, and this is the 21st Century.

As usual, the ban reflects the Ulema’s obsession with sex. For some reason, the clerics believe that mobile phone contact between complementary sexes is likely to inspire adultery and premarital sex. Also as usual, they’ve got it backwards. Wouldn’t the restriction of electronic communication lead to more face-to-face communication? Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage electronic communication in an effort to restrict the actual physical propinquity that is required for sexual relations?

Q: Why do religious fanatics want to ban having sex in an upright position?
A: It might lead to dancing.

Like many of the ill-thought-out proclamations made by those who are out of touch with the world, this edict will not be taken seriously. There are some things that simply cannot be commanded by anyone. In fact forbidding something in many cases actually encourages it. I forbid you to imagine a Las Vegas showgirl. There; gotcha!

Moreover, as noted earlier, this is Indonesia. One of the most salient cultural traits here is the inclination simply to disregard rules, regulations, or laws if they are even mildly inconvenient. Given the market penetration (am I still allowed to employ the word ‘penetration’? It won’t lead to lustful thoughts? Gotcha again!), of the banned forms of communication, does anyone seriously expect the edicts to have any impact on the behaviour of Indonesian Muslims?

Many authorities have learned the hard way that passing laws that won’t be obeyed serves only to diminish the power of that authority. The habit of disobedience of secular and clerical law is an easy one to acquire; all it takes is a few sorties into the world of disobedience for the tenuous nature of authority to become clear. Once the rules are broken even once, the next infraction becomes that much easier. Ask any Catholic who commits the sin of Onan, a Jew who tries bacon, or a Muslim who takes a drink. The second foray into the realm of the forbidden is much, much easier.

This is so because the authority that has declared something verboten is quickly seen to be lacking the resources to enforce compliance, so the threat of earthly punishment is recognized as nothing but bluster. Moreover, the threat of divine retribution is significantly diluted when the earthly authorities are shown to be impotent; if their threats are hollow and their reasoning flawed, can they really be authentic representatives of God?

Once these questions are posed regularly, the people, far from being cowed into compliance with absurd strictures, are setting foot on the most dangerous path of all…the path that leads to thinking for one’s self. The last thing the Ulemas want is for the faithful to start thinking independently, examining presuppositions, drawing their own conclusions; no religion can survive that kind of subversive behaviour. And yet their edicts will inevitably cause many adherents to do exactly those things. Just as the silverback’s gratuitously aggressive behaviour triggers rebellion in the simian pretenders to the clan’s leadership, pointless, futile fatwas from the established religious authorities will encourage sceptical examination of the entire religious edifice.

These edicts seem to be aimed specifically at the younger members of Indonesian society. It is they who have embraced electronic forms of communication and who are the growing market for Facebook and its brethren. Perhaps this is because the Ulemas find expressions of sexuality the greatest challenge to their authority, and healthy young people are prone to be profoundly interested in sexuality and all its glorious manifestations. In fact, in all of humanity, only clerics are more preoccupied with sex than are young people.

Since the very existence of the human race is evidence that sex cannot be eradicated, all the clerics can really hope to do is make one of humanity’s greatest treasures seem dirty.

Q: Is sex dirty?
A: Only if you’re doing it right.

The overzealous attempts to control the uncontrollable, to eradicate the ineradicable, to sully the beautiful will, if we’re fortunate, have some effect. These edicts may just encourage people to ignore further silly, reactionary fatwas, and they may encourage people, particularly young people to treat any statements, proclamations, or edicts coming from established authorities with the utmost scepticism.

If anyone has a natural duty to the community, or to society, or to God, if he should exist, surely it is the duty to use one’s brains and to reject imposed idiocy.


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