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Indonesia’s highest Muslim authority will issue a fatwa against ‘fake news’

Women perform an evening prayer called Tarawih the night before the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta. (Adi Weda/European Pressphoto Agency)

Here are some of the rumors flying around Indonesia lately:

  • 10 million Chinese workers have flooded the country in the past few months. (In reality, it's more like 21,000, though Indonesia's president said he'd welcome "10 million Chinese tourists” to bolster the economy).
  • A free HPV vaccine program, sponsored by a Chinese leader, will make girls infertile.
  • Chinese are waging biological warfare on Indonesia vis-à-vis contaminated chili seeds.

Even Indonesia's currency isn't immune: Speculators have suggested that new bills will feature the communist hammer and sickle, a banned image. They won't. Like the others, that story is wholly manufactured by “fake news” sites, which have exploded in recent months, inflaming sectarian tensions.

Now, Indonesia's highest Muslim authority will issue a fatwa declaring the spread of bogus stories to be “un-Islamic.” “We will issue it as soon as possible, because the situation is worrying,” Indonesian Ulema Council chairman Maruf Amin said. “Hopefully, at least Muslims won't be involved anymore in hoaxes.”

Unfortunately, fatwas by the Ulema Council, which represents the country's major moderate and conservative Muslim groups, tend not to have much impact. In the past, it's issued fatwas against clearing land for plantations by burning vegetation and against companies that force Muslim employees to wear Santa hats and other “Christmas-related attire.”

The nonbinding ruling will be issued before the Feb. 15 election for Jakarta governor. It's aimed at curbing the rampant spread of misinformation about incumbent Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

Purnama, a Christian of Chinese origin, is running against two Muslim candidates. If he wins, he will be the first elected non-Muslim governor in Indonesia. (He was appointed to the post in 2014, when then-governor Joko Widodo ran for president.)

That has prompted an outcry from some right-wing Islamic groups, which have warned voters in the world's most populous Muslim country not to support “nonbelievers.” And they've targeted Purnama in other ways, too. The governor was brought up on blasphemy charges after he allegedly insulted the Koran in a video that went viral. (He said his words were mistranslated.) That film prompted mass demonstrations by the hard-line Islam Defenders Front, who want Purnama jailed.

Islam Defenders Front head Rizieq Shihab has also fanned anti-Chinese sentiment through social media — he tweeted recently that China wants to take over Indonesia and turn the country into a communist state. Long-simmering tensions between Indonesia's Muslim and Chinese population have been boiling up for decades. In 1998, about 1,000 people died during two days of anti-Chinese riots fueled by food shortages.

Widodo has also spoken out against fake news, urging users to refrain from sharing it. Last month, the government invited executives from Facebook to join a conversation on how to combat the problem. And he has pledged to launch a news agency to combat fake news, along with a public information campaign about hoaxes.