Twitter Wars in Asia


It's Saturday, which means it's time for Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar Abdalla to greet his nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter and discuss the religious issuesof the day.Ulil, who is affiliated with the Islamic Liberal Network, jokingly calls it 'TweetFatwa', a dig at the conservative Indonesian Ulema Council, which frequently issues fatwasagainst anything from Hollywood movie 2012 (for depicting Armageddon), to women using hair-straightening products (a desire to improve physical appearance can lead to immoral acts), to women riding on motorcycle taxis (close physical contact with the opposite sex).

Ulil's Tweetsusually focus on grassroots issues tied to Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, such as why eating pork is forbidden in Islam, female circumcision and interest at banks. He promotes pluralism and religious tolerance, but also Tweets about football, donuts and Luna Maya, his favorite Indonesian actress.

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Ulil is part of a growing number of Indonesians turning to Twitter to spread their message. The social networking site, which currently has more than 100 million usersacross the globe, continues to take Indonesia by storm. Earlier this year, Sysomos, an international social media monitoring firm, ranked Indonesia sixthglobally in terms of number of users,after the United States, Brazil, Britain, Canada and Germany.

Indeed, Thailand-based media consultant Jon Russellrecently named Jakarta the 'Twitter Capital of Asia.'

'With a population of 230 million plus, Indonesia is a huge potential market for social networking, just in numbers alone,' he told Reuters, adding that Twitter's popularity is largely due to the low cost of mobile Internet devices and increasing demand for smartphones.

This popularity has not gone unnoticed by Muslim commentators in a country that also has by far the largest Muslim population in the world. The mainstream camp includes Ulil's colleague from the Liberal Islam Network, Luthfie Syaukanie (2,691 followers); noted Muslim cleric Quraish Shihab (28,862 followers)and Komarudin Hidayat, a Muslim scholar and rector of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, (2,661 followers).

But conservatives aren't shying from the Twitter debate either. Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring, for example, has 52,658 followers, while fellow leaders of the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Partyand activists from Islamic hard-line group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesiaalso have a presence.

'My friends urged me to join Twitter. I'm enjoying it so far, as it's easier and simpler to share ideas compared with other social media sites,' says Komarudin, who has passed the 2500 followers mark despite having only joined on May 24. 'It's also more interactive, so I can reach a wider audience.'

Many Indonesian Twitter users, affectionately known as 'Tweeps,' are thrilled to be able to interact with moderate Muslim figures in the comfort of cyberspace where, in real time, they can discuss their hopes and anxieties—including that Indonesiais becoming more religiously conservative and intolerant.

Bali-based writer Rudolf Dethu says that while he's agnostic, he follows moderate Muslims' Tweets, as they show that Islam is actually more flexible and responsive to current issuesthan its popular image often suggests.

Screenwriter Ginatri S. Noer agrees, saying she has gained a greater insight into different points of view on Islam by following Ulil and Quraish.

'I'm glad to have found Ulil on Twitter,' she says. 'My father opposes the [Liberal Islam Network] so much, and [those views are] what I had heard for years before following Ulil on Twitter'.

The network has come in for criticism from many conservatives who don't agree with its message of pluralism and liberalism—they accuse it of spreading a defiant tenet of Islam. One group, the Islamic Community Brotherhood Forum, went so far as to declare in 2005 that Ulil's blood is halal, or permitted under Islamic law, meaning that it was acceptable for Muslims to kill him.

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