A Holy War Against Smoking

by Nathan Yohannes:

JAKARTA—The perplexing medley of ultra-modern malls and office buildings coupled with street vendors and ragged beggars is the second thing that riles the senses. The first is the thick haze of cigarette smoke inescapable in the offices, stores, restaurants, and sidewalks of the most populous city in Southeast Asia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60 million of Indonesia’s 225 million inhabitants and 70 percent of the country’s male population are smokers. Smoking has become so woven into the fabric of Indonesian life that in the town of Padang Panjang on the island of Sumatra, traditional marriage proposals are incomplete until a gift of tobacco is made to the bride’s family. Just recently, a two-year-old Indonesian named Ardi Rizal made international headlines for his habit of smoking 40 cigarettes a day. Controversial religious decrees have lately become a prime weapon in the fight to check the national tobacco addiction.

In March of this year, Muhammadiyah, the 40-million-member-strong Indonesian Muslim organization, issued a fatwa—an Islamic legal declaration—condemning cigarette usage as haram, or forbidden. Although the completion of the Qur’an certainly predates the invention of cigarettes, Muhammadiyah scholars cite various Islamic teachings to justify their decision, including keeping good health and not consuming intoxicants or emitting offensive odors. Organizations like Muhammadiyah and its peer Nahdlatul ulama—which has labeled smoking only as makruh, or frowned upon—issue fatwas, which they urge all members to follow, to clarify issues and debates that are not directly addressed in the Qur’an. Fatwas on the subject of tobacco have sparked some outrage, as many moderate Muslims view them as an invasion of privacy. But there is evidence to suggest that fatwas against smoking may not be inspired by religious duty only.

70 percent of Indonesia's male population are smokers, according to the WHO. Here, a boy smokes on a boat. (Kaiser, TYG)

Adlin Sila, a researcher at the Ministry of Religion who has studied this debate extensively, said that overseas anti-tobacco NGOs may be funding Muhammadiyah to continue their controversial campaign against tobacco. Piet Khaidir, the director of the Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilisations, a subsidiary of Muhammadiyah, identified an ulterior motive: politicking. The fatwa was apparently the brainchild of a Muhammadiyah leader with aspirations to be chairman of the organization. Rumors swirl about the true motivation for this fatwa, but Khadir revealed that even within the Muhammadiyah headquarters, there has been no decrease in smoking. “The joke,” Khaidir said, “is that there are two groups in Muhammadiyah. The majority is smoker while the minority is nonsmoker.” This trend is no exception; the fatwa is notoriously ignored and often lambasted by other Muslim organizations and even other anti-smoking organizations, which do not believe that religious doctrine is the most effective way to enact change. However, all agree that change is needed.

The cultural indoctrination of smoking feeds the monster that is the Indonesian cigarette industry. Nearly one million workers find employment in the sector, and tobacco tycoons top the lists of wealthiest Indonesians. According to the WHO, the average household spends more on tobacco than on health care or education and almost as much as on rice. According to Dr. Widyastuti Wibisana, a researcher at the WHO’s Tobacco-Free Initiative in Indonesia, “many Indonesians do not know that cigarettes hurt.” Naivety is understandable considering the misleading information—effectively propaganda—promulgated by tobacco companies about their products. In the past, smoking was considered patriotic; tobacco companies were locally owned and cigarette sales boosted the national economy. In recent years, major foreign juggernauts, most notably the U.S.-based Phillip Morris, have bought up these small enterprises and redirected the profits out of the country.

This realignment of the profit path has not checked Indonesia’s tobacco addiction. The nation, which loses between 200,000 and 400,000 people each year to tobacco-related diseases, has only recently passed its first smoking-related health law. Tax increases, which both create revenue and discourage Indonesia’s large lower and middle-class populations from purchasing traditionally cheap cigarettes, have been most effective in curbing smoking habits.

It is doubtful that the Indonesian people will ever embrace this crusade against their cherished cigarettes, whether by health-conscious or dogmatic appeals in the form of questionable fatwas and unproven public health policies.

Nathan Yohannes ’13 is in Pierson College. Contact him at nathan.yohannes@yale.edu.