Indonesia's top Islamic body weighs up smoking ban

Padang Panjang, Indonesia - Indonesia's top Islamic body debated on Sunday whether to apply a blanket ban on smoking for Muslims or place a more limited restriction on tobacco use in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

Officially secular Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and about 700 people, including Muslim clerics and theological experts, have gathered in West Sumatra for the National Edict Commission meeting, which could issue fatwas on a range of areas from polygamy to doing yoga.

"Maybe smokers won't drop the habit in five or six years, but we hope that before the apocalypse there won't be any smoker in Indonesia if we put a ban on it," said Hasan Mansur Nasution, an ulema from North Sumatra, who favored a ban despite being a smoker himself.

The debate over smoking has revealed a split between those wanting to make it "haram," or not allowed, and others who favor a "makruh," a Arabic term whereby it would only be advised that smoking is bad and it is better to drop it.

The economic importance of the tobacco industry in Indonesia has also played a role in the talks and ulemas, or religious councils, in central and east Java, both areas where the industry is a big employer, have argued against a ban.

"Haram has a relation to sin and so the mosques built by cigarettes factories would also be haram, because they were funded by something haram," Syafiq Nashan, the head of the ulema in the city of Kudus, a center for the tobacco industry, said.

Some clerics also argued that there was no Islamic tenet that bans smoking.

Indonesia is the world's No. 5 tobacco market and, at around $1 a pack, cigarettes are among the cheapest in the world. Some cities in Indonesia, including Jakarta, have banned smoking in public places, but the rules are widely flouted.

Other than smoking, the council is expected to issue guidance on yoga, sharia banking, abstaining from voting and polygamy.

There is a debate over whether Muslims should avoid yoga because of the view it uses Hindu prayers that could erode Muslims' faith.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi intervened last year to say that Muslims could carry on doing yoga minus chanting after its National Fatwa Council had issued a ban.

The MUI has carved a key role for itself in Indonesia and its pronouncements on everything from Islamic banking to halal food can have a big influence on Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

The fatwas are not legally binding but place pressure on Muslims to adhere to them and can influence government policy.

Indonesia Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who opened the meeting on Saturday, urged the MUI to ensure that its decisions on fatwas did not "sow fear" and were in line with a changing world.

The meeting, which is due to decide on proposed fatwas later on Sunday, will not see a vote and if no consensus is reached the central board will step in to decide.