Environmental activists said they would wait for a year at the minimum to see whether a fatwa or edict issued by the Indonesian Ulemma Council (MUI), which says it is haram or forbidden in Islam to deliberately set fires in a forest and to not act to prevent forest-burning, would work to curb the annual forest burning.
“I think it would take at least two years to see whether this edict would work in preventing forest burning,” said Henri Subagio, the executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.
Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner, Yuyun Indardi estimated it would be at least a year to determine if the moral weight that the fatwa carries could be effective to curb people from setting forests on fire.
The six-point fatwa, issued on Sep 13, says land clearing to grow crops by burning a forest, which causes environmental devastation, losses to others, had a negative impact on health and other adverse impacts is a sin.
Other points in the fatwa say facilitating, allowing, ignoring or taking benefits from forest burning are also forbidden and that it is obligatory for Muslims to take part in preventing and controlling forest burning.
“The MUI issued the fatwa after a lengthy deliberation process, which involved research, hearings with forestry and environmental experts and field studies to collect inputs from locals to see the impact of forest fires,” said Arwani Faisal, a member of MUI’s fatwa commission.
Novrizal, a spokesman for the Forestry and Environmental Ministry said the ministry hopes the fatwa could serve as a “soft power” in the government’s efforts to curb forest burning that has been taking place annually since late 1990s, in addition to positive law enforcement.
The worst forest fire so far was last year when choking haze blanketed Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Thailand. Data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency showed the fires cost the country 20 trillion rupiah in material losses, caused 24 deaths and led to millions of others suffering various degree of respiratory illnesses.
Khusna Amal, an Islamic scholar at State Islamic Institute Jember in East Java, said a fatwa holds a considerable authority as a moral law that Islamic clerics produce.
But whether the authority would be held in high regards enough to prevent people from burning the forests would depend on the Muslim society’s emotional attachment to the clerics.
“Traditionalist Muslims may not see the clerical body with close, emotional attachment since it is an official body founded by the government, so they may not take the fatwa seriously,” Khusna said, adding it would be more effective if it were clerics with cultural, personal and emotional attachment to people at the grassroot level who issued the fatwa.
“In addition, grassroot Muslims are very fragmented and they may have different level of compliance and points of view about a fatwa,” he said.
However, Khusna commended MUI for issuing a fatwa that draws attention to a dire ecological and environmental issue that continues to plague the country.
“Basically every Muslim knows that it is a sin to destroy the environment but this fatwa could exert moral pressures to that view, with more substantive arguments about the importance to protect the environment,” he said.
Henri also praised the MUI for issuing the fatwa, saying that despite doubts on the fatwa’s effectiveness, it signifies that Muslims in the country in general support the prevention of forest burning and it is a step that other religious societies in the country could emulate.
“In the context of campaigning, the fatwa could help,” Yuyun of Greenpeace Indonesia said.
MUI’s Arwani said the clerical body has plans to disseminate the fatwa through sermons and other religious outreach activities at the grassroots level in various regions, especially in areas where forest fires often originated.
“We hope the fatwa will be effective, complementary to the existing positive law. We want Muslims not to burn forests, despite whatever reasons they may have and we want them also to actively take part on preventing the fires, not just in extinguishing the fires,” Arwani said.