JAKARTA — The country briefly dizzied itself this past week after a group of Muslim clerics from the country’s largest Islamic organization, the Nahdatul Ulama, recommended creating rules to govern how Muslims use Facebook — again pitting the nation’s religious against its increasing modernity.

The clerical bunch were concerned the social-networking site could be used to flirt, leading to illicit affairs, adultery or worse. Their concerns are certainly not a stretch and it’s not the first time the issue has come up. Muslim leaders here had similar concerns with Friendster and MySpace in previous years.

But this time a frantic Indonesian press jumped all over the story and in its haste grossly exaggerated it. A slew of stories incorrectly said the clerics had issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, that outright banned the popular site for Muslims.

Fatwas are not legally binding but it is considered a sin if a Muslim doesn’t abide by the ruling. A bevy of bizarre rulings in recently years, however, has hurt the credibility of some of the country’s leading Muslim organizations and the public is increasingly less likely to follow them. The Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious authority, was widely ridiculed last year when it considered banning yoga.

Fatwas are front page news here and often lead to a national debate. So when the local press reported Facebook was now forbidden, Indonesians, who are obsessed with all kinds of socializing, let their disapproval rain. Sensing the public relations disaster, the clerics quickly backpedaled.

Facebook is essentially the modern incarnation of the Indonesian coffee shop, where Indonesians often sit for hours gossiping and meeting new people. With less than 1 percent of Indonesians connected to the Internet, the coffee shop still reigns supreme. But that hasn’t stopped Facebook from becoming the most visited website here. The company has said it sees tremendous growth potential in Indonesia as more and more far flung villages get wired.

In fact, Indonesia, which has the world’s largest population of Muslims and is the world’s fourth most populous country, also has the most Facebook users outside of the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy.

And Muslim clerics are no exception.

Following the news, numerous influential ulema stood up for the site, calling it an invaluable tool. Din Syamsuddin, leader of the country’s second-largest Muslim group with 30 million members, told Indonesia’s state news agency that he had several Facebook accounts with almost 15,000 friends.

“Facebook is a communication tool just like the cell phone, e-mail and other very useful information technology devices,” he said. “There is even a Muhammadiyah group of regular Facebook users called ‘Jamaah Facebookiah.’”

Professors at the Islamic College in South Jakarta, which offers an undergraduate program and a masters in both Islamic philosophy and Islamic mysticism, recommend their students sign up for Facebook as a useful way to share news and religious ideas.

During a break from class this week, several of the school’s students said the idea of banning Facebook was absurd.

“Why make it haram? It is good for finding more friends and more knowledge,” said Rugayah Ahmad Al Kaff, a 20-year-old freshman, who wears a headscarf and is studying all things Islam. “I check my Facebook five times a day, for almost one hour each time!”

Despite being devout Muslims, the young students admit they pay little attention to the religious edicts passed by the Ulema Council, Nahdlatul Ulama or Muhammadiyah, saying that the leaders of those organizations are often out of touch with average Indonesians and are passing fatwas that have little bearing on the country’s real problems.

“I could understand banning Facebook if its contents were are all pornos, though that would be quite funny to me,” said Reno Ramutu, 26. “But there are many other issues other than Facebook that are more important, that could more reasonably be called haram.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Indonesia:

Saving the 'Coral Triangle'

The wandering Rohingya

Watching for disaster

Related Stories