Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Twitter Wars in Asia

Conservative and liberal Muslims in Indonesia are taking their fight for hearts and minds to Twitter. Is that good or bad?

By Hera Diani for

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.

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.'

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'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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These voices are finding Twitter a useful tool with which to spread their message. Hard-liners from Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, for example, which wants to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, constantly take to the Web to warn of the dangers of secularism, pluralism and liberalism.

'There are a bunch ofTweeps who loathe, or at least are suspicious of, the very idea of pluralism and tolerance,' Ulil says.But he adds that what he has found most surprising on Twitteris that many urban dwellers who seem easygoingand love to go clubbing, for example,  turn out to lean towards the strongly conservative side when it comes to religious issues.

'It shows how people still take religious teachings for granted and refuse to use reason,' he says.Ulil points to his decision to criticize the public furor over the 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day' competition on Facebook, which he says prompted numerous critical comments despite him having also criticized those who like to provoke Muslims by insulting their religion.

Indeed, as the attacks mountedin May, Ulil lost his patience and said he wouldn't Tweet about religious issues anymore, lashing out at one Tweep who asked him about interfaith marriage, saying that he 'couldn't care less' (although he apologized the next day, saying he had learned a lesson about Tweeting in a bad mood).

Ulil, who used to be known for his verbal sparring on TV and radio with radical Islamic clerics over interpretations of the Koran, toned it down for a few days, but reemerged with a vengeance following the deadly military attack by Israel on a Turkish vesselpurportedly carrying humanitarian assistance for Gaza. Ulil condemned the attack, but urged people not to link the Israel-Palestine conflict with religion because it's a political issue. Not surprisingly, all hell broke loose as dozens of Twitter users bombarded him with angry tweets.

But conservative Muslims aren't immune from attacks either, including Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring (who some would argue has it coming with controversial statements such as blaming the country's frequent earthquakes and other natural disasterson immorality).

Tifatul, whose twitter ID is @tifsembiring, has complained that the negative Tweeps are excessively harsh, but this didn't stop him launching a mischievous competition in November to find his harshest critic after his ministry blocked a Web site displaying cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The winner was Aribowo Sangkoyo, who Tweeted, 'Nazis is now spelled PKS, @tifsembiring (they) are the Joseph Goebbels of our time!' Aribowo won a Nokiaphone as a prize, although he turned it down because he didn't 'want him (Tifatul) to feel that he had won.' Indeed, he has continued his attacks on Tifatul and the PKS, frequently dismissing them as camel traders because of their tendency to follow Middle Eastern traditions.

The battle between moderate and conservative Muslims on Twitter is a microcosm of the global difficulty of fostering constructive dialog among opposing religious views.

Komarudinplays down the Twitter wars, saying that it's all just part of a process of people becoming more mature. 'People are free to express different opinions, but some of the harsh comments on Twitter show that people still have a superficial understanding of religion and tolerance,' he says. 'Let them be. I believe their numbers are low.'

But Roby Muhammad, a social media observer and psychology lecturer at the University of Indonesia, says that while the Internet can be a tool for democracy through giving people a greater voice, it also polarizes debate between moderate and conservative Muslims.

'The Internet brings freedom, including the freedom to choose friends/users/news that justify our opinions,' Roby says. 'So, people just choose to make friends with people who share the same viewsas them.'