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Making it all up as we go along: The Huffington Post, the Telegraph, and Indonesian fatwas

January 23, 2010

I read the Huffington Post a lot, partially to keep up with political news in the US, and partially because I find myself entertained by its ridiculous coverage of Muslim issues. Today, in the World section, there is this headline, prominently displayed along with a picture: Muslim Clerics Seek Ban on ‘Funky Hairstyles‘.

Somebody misplaced this story; it should have been filed under HuffPo's "LOL @ Muslims" section.

When you navigate to the story, here is what is written:

Telegraph:

An Islamic body which has issued fatwas on inappropriate behaviour from practising yoga to failing to vote in elections said it is now considering a request to tackle the craze among pupils in religious boarding schools.

Read the whole story: Telegraph

As it turns out, the Telegraph story, which is not much longer than the write-up given at the Huffington Post, is about a group of clerics in East Java, Indonesia.

Now why is this trivial factoid included as a prominent piece of world news?

Answer: because anytime Muslims – anywhere on earth – do something unseemly, it is newsworthy.

* * *

(I noticed that a variation of the same story had been posted one day ago. Its headline reads: Indonesia’s Clerics Call for Chemical Hair-Straightening Ban. But let’s stick to today’s story for now.)

Problems

1. The headline is worded in the most universal terms imaginable. We’re told that the “ban” is being called for by “Muslim Clerics.” How many clerics? Where? Representing who? Sunni or Shiite? This, apparently, is not important (and not mentioned in the write-up itself, either). All that matters is that they are Muslims, and readers can now enjoy one more odd tidbit about the silly things “Muslim clerics” do, without being bothered by specifics or context. They’re all the same.

2. The headline speaks of said “Muslim Clerics” calling for a “ban”. This is incorrect; what is being sought is a fatwa. This is a religious opinion, which may be given for or against something, and – in any event – carries no legal weight in Indonesia. (In the context of religious schools, a fatwa against the aforementioned hairstyles would effectively be a ban, but the headline implies a public, national or even global scope.)

3. The write-up begins:

An Islamic body which has issued fatwas on inappropriate behaviour from practising yoga to failing to vote in elections …

The body being referred to is the “MUI” – “Majelis Ulama Indonesia” or “Indonesian Council of Ulama” (ulama being the plural of alim, an Arabic word denoting a scholar, or person of knowledge – ilm).

The MUI did issue an opinion (fatwa) on yoga in January of 2009. It never, however, declared the practice of yoga to be “inappropriate”, as the tongue-in-cheek writing in the Telegraph (reproduced by the Huffington Post) implies. The opinion (fatwa) given stated that yoga was only haram (a religious category meaning “forbidden” – i.e., incurring sin) if it involved non-Islamic religious rituals, but that it was perfectly fine (halal) if used simply as exercise. Nusantara News (Indonesian) reports:

Sedangkan tentang Yoga, MUI memfatwakan senam yoga haram apabila di dalamnya ada melakukan ritual agama lain.

Menurut Ketua Panitia Ijtima MUI Yaswirman menyatakan senam Yoga bisa halal jika hanya senam kebugaran tubuh saja.

Translation:

Meanwhile as for Yoga, MUI issued a fatwa [declaring that] yoga is haram (“forbidden”/sinful) when its practice incorporates religious rituals from other religions.

According to Yaswirman, the Chair of MUI’s Ijtima Committee, the practice of Yoga can be halal (“allowed”/beneficial) if it is only [used as] a form of bodily fitness.

The Telegraph-cum-Huffington Post article’s misleading wording appears to be based on part of this Reuters release: Hairdos now in Indonesia Muslim clerics’ crosshairs (pun intended?), which explains:

Islamic edicts have no binding legal power, but that has not stopped the Indonesian Council of Ulama, which consists of elected clerics and scholars, from issuing fatwas on practices ranging from yoga to failing to vote in elections.

In an attempt to be cute, apparently someone at the Telegraph added the word “inappropriate”, and in the process mangled the veracity of the sentence. They must have assumed that Muslims would have a negative, provincial attitude toward the practice. Or alternatively, they may have wrongfully assumed (as many people do) that a fatwa is a ban or a death threat; actually all it is is a religious opinion.

Since I’m guessing not many Indonesian-speakers are on staff at the Huffington Post, this lie gets repeated to an American audience.

4. As the Telegraph article states,

Aminudin Yakub, the deputy secretary of the Fatwa Commission, said: “For now, we are yet to make an institutional decision on this.

So far, we have not seen strong evidence to ban it.

It could be discussed in future but right now it is not a priority.”

[emphasis added]

It is evident from the quote above that this is very much a non-issue. A group came to the Indonesian Council of Ulama requesting that certain hairstyles be declared haram. The MUI doesn’t see much evidence for such a ruling, and furthermore is not taking it up as a priority. Logical conclusion: this warrants a prominent headline on the Huffington Post.

5. Look at the picture again:

Did you even notice how ridiculous it was when you first saw it? What do hundreds of Indonesian Muslims praying in a field have to do with this story? Secondly, as is obvious to any Muslim, this picture is not even from a regular prayer, but rather one of the big Eid holiday prayers (and in Bali – not even Java). The issue in the story is about Indonesian girls getting their hair permed. Why not provide a picture of something remotely relevant, like oh, say, this:

Instead there is a picture of hundreds of Muslims praying. Why? Answer: because that is what Muslims generally do – you know, mob together and pray in fields.

God forbid an ounce of individuality, personality, or beauty – that is, humanity – be given to Muslims in the media. But as you already knew, they’re all the same.

6. According to another article about the same story, posted on the Huffington Post one day earlier, the group making the fatwa request was the Forum Musyawarah Pondok Pesantren Putri from East Java. This is a body that represents some female religious schools (“pesantren putri”) in the area. The same Aminudin Yakub of MUI from the Telegraph article was mentioned:

Yakub said that the issue is not high on the Fatwa Commission’s priority list and that it might be discussed in the future.

Despite this, the Huffington Post decided to run the headline of the story as “Indonesia’s Islamic Clerics Call for Chemical Hair-Straightening Ban” – as if all the clerics in the country are petitioning the government.

Let’s get this straight: a localized group of representatives from female religious schools in East Java approaches Indonesia’s official national council of Islamic scholars – the MUI – seeking a fatwa against certain hairstyles. The request is not taken seriously by MUI. Logical outcome: a headline is written simply describing the desired fatwa as a “ban” and ascribing the request to “Indonesia’s clerics”.

The next time some fringe Senator proposes an outlandish bill in Congress, I will be sure to write a headline about the legislation being called for by “America’s politicians” and publish it in the Huffington Post.

(Today’s article, remember, was even more vague, using only the phrase “Muslim clerics”.) But as is clear by now – they are all the same.

* * *

7. The MUI, if anyone cares to know, has already issued a statement about this matter (not in the form of a fatwa). ANTARA News (Indonesian) reported it one week ago on January 16th.

Jakarta (ANTARA News) – Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) menegaskan, hukum meluruskan rambut atau rebonding sangat terkait dengan konteksnya, namun hukum asalnya mubah dalam arti dibolehkan.

“Jika tujuan dan dampaknya negatif maka hukumnya haram. Sebaliknya, jika tujuan dan dampaknya positif maka dibolehkan, bahkan dianjurkan,” kata Wakil Sekretaris Komisi Fatwa MUI Dr Asrorun Ni`am Sholeh di Jakarta, Sabtu.

Menurutnya, rebonding sebagai sebuah cara untuk berhias diri, hukum asalnya dibolehkan sepanjang tidak menyebabkan bahaya, baik secara fisik, psikis, maupun sosial.

Translation:

Jakarta (ANTARA News) – Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) announced that the [Islamic] ruling on the straightening of hair or rebonding very much depends on the context, but the basic ruling remains as mubah, meaning permissible.

If the goal and effect [of adopting the hairstyle] are negative, then it is ruled as haram (“forbidden”/sinful). On the other hand, if the goal and effect are positive then it is allowed, even suggested,” said Vice Secretary of MUI’s Fatwa Commission, Dr. Asrorun Ni`am Sholeh in Jakarta on Saturday.

According to him, [as far as] rebonding as a way to beautify oneself, the basic ruling is [that it is] permissible as long as it does not bring about danger, whether physical, psychological or social.

* * *

A recent Indonesian shampoo commercial, explaining how customers can get the chance to be visited at home by heartthrob “Ariel”:

* * *

In conclusion

The so-called “journalism” embodied by these Huffington Post and Telegraph articles is laughable. It entails selectively and misleadingly presenting the most trivial non-stories as “news” about Muslims. No real effort is made to provide context, nuance, or even facts. Reason?: Muslims are all the same and who the eff is going to know the difference anyway?

(No doubt, I will see this nonsense regurgitated before long in the form of a mindless comment like “First they want to ban ‘funky hairstyles’, then this.. Religion poisons everything”.)

Sadly, this sort of willful negligence/dishonesty is standard procedure for our mainstream media; I don’t expect it to change soon. Until it does, there will be plenty to write about 🙂

An categ Islamic body which has issued fatwas on inappropriate behaviour from practising yoga to failing to vote in elections
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12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010 6:11 am

    Mashallah, very well put. Look forward to more entries inshallah.

    • January 25, 2010 2:07 am

      Thanks, Stephanie; I like your blog, btw.

      PS: Yes – Insha’Allah you never be on the ‘people of wal-mart’ website hahaha

  2. Yusuf permalink
    January 25, 2010 1:42 am

    Nice piece. Got here from an Angry Arab link. Hopefully you get a loyal following to your blog, I’ve bookmarked it for future reading.

    • January 25, 2010 2:26 am

      Thanks for commenting, Yusuf. I’m usually pretty lazy/inept at marketing myself, so it was crazy to see the visitor stats before and after this got posted on Angry Arab News – went from about 5 to 500 haha… alhamdulillah!

      Do check back soon; will be writing more iA.

      peace

  3. a*star2874 permalink
    January 25, 2010 4:27 am

    I really enjoyed this entry and will check in to see what you find out next. Thanks you for writing it.

  4. history_lover permalink
    January 25, 2010 4:39 am

    Good one
    any fatwa is big news. These kind of ‘news’ are big in Indian media too.

    • January 26, 2010 12:15 am

      thanks. and that reminds me – I should keep an eye on the Indian press too. ah… the internet is too big!

  5. January 26, 2010 9:04 pm

    Great post – well-researched and logically written out. If only HuffPost applied the same ethics of research and logic to their reporting.

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