To most Indonesians, Ahmad Mustofa Bisri is an influential Muslim cleric and a respected figure from the country’s biggest Islamic organisation, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama.
To most Indonesians, Ahmad Mustofa Bisri is an influential Muslim cleric and a respected figure from the country’s biggest Islamic organisation, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama. But to his 7,000-odd followers on Twitter, the 66-year-old is “Kyai Gaul”, or the Trendy Cleric, who thumbs daily Islamic greetings on his iPad and Blackberry.
Bisri is among a number of Islamic leaders — conservative and liberal — who are turning to the Internet in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the faithful in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
“I set up an account last month because I like to make friends with everyone. I don’t position myself as a mufti, a religious authority. I only share what I know,” said Bisri, who is better known as Gus Mus or “Brother Mus” — short for Mustofa.
“It’s important for those who understand the faith to spread the word. Those who don’t know, but say they do, may mislead,” he added.
Besides microblogging site Twitter, he has been preaching religious tolerance and moderation on social networking site Facebook, where he has 2,600 “friends” and 62,000 “fans”.
Islamists from hardline groups like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) also have a Web presence, using the modern medium to advocate ancient capital punishments like stoning for adulterers.
The battle for Indonesia’s Islamic identity is just one way the Internet is shaping and transforming public debate in the country of 240 million people, where Web usage has exploded in the past five years.
With its booming economy and burgeoning middle class, the archipelago has rapidly become one of the world’s biggest Twitter users, according to online research firm comScore.
Of 41 countries surveyed, it had the highest percentage of Internet users at home and work accessing Twitter in June 2010, or more than 20 percent of its 45 million people online, comScore said.
No one who wants to be anyone — not even the stick-wielding, fringe-dwelling religious fanatics of the FPI — can afford not to have a Twitter account and a Facebook page in Indonesia.
And almost inevitably in a country as diverse as Indonesia, questions of faith consistently top the list of trending topics of debate.
Twitter “wars” are being waged on a daily basis between liberals who promote pluralism and religious tolerance, and conservatives who advocate a stern interpretation of Islam and strict moral values.
Some of the old elite are uncomfortable in the brave new world of instant communication and user-generated content.
Scandalised by the release online of a local rock star’s homemade sex videos earlier this year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono warned that the Internet “frenzy” was a threat to the nation’s moral fibre.
But blogger Purwaka, known online as Blontank Poer, says the more open flow of information and opinion is good for a country that emerged from the tight grip of military strongman Suharto only in 1998.
“Twitter wars are good wars,” the 42-year-old said.
“The winner is the public. They gain a better understanding of Islam and can make their own conclusion after hearing different opinions from experts on the faith,” he added.
From homosexuality to atheism and the treatment of minorities, Indonesians are finding they can talk about subjects online which they would be reluctant to discuss in their offices, classrooms and around their kitchen tables.
Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring, a conservative Muslim, is one of the nation’s most prolific and controversial Tweeters and boasts 120,000 “followers” — or other users who subscribe to his comment stream.
He drew international ridicule with a post describing how, as a pious Muslim, he had reluctantly shaken hands with US First Lady Michelle Obama at a state reception in Jakarta last month.
One of his critics, liberal Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar Abdalla, Tweeted to his 35,000 followers: “Enough, enough, from now on, shaking hands with non-mahrams (those unrelated by marriage) is allowed.”
“It’s halal (permissible) if it’s the level of Michelle Obama,” he added.
Gus Mus advised the minister to “calm down” and put his beliefs in perspective.
“Calm down, sir. God is too BIG to supervise your handshaking with Mrs. Michelle,” he commented.
Sembiring later clarified his position in a series of Tweets, which only generated more howls of embarrassment from his liberal opponents.
“I’m fine as long as there’s an open debate and people convey their messages politely, without curses and insults,” the minister told AFP.
“I’ll usually talk to them but if they continue insulting me and refuse to act in a civilised manner, after two to three times, I’ll block them.”
IT researcher and free-speech advocate Donny Budi Utoyo said that while Muslim leaders had different views, those engaged in social networks shared an ability to cope with criticism and the cut and thrust of the new media.
“Both the liberal and conservative leaders who have joined Twitter so far seem to be open people who know how to smile. If they’re attacked, they respond in a positive manner,” he said.
“This reflects the maturity of mind that is needed for any process of dialogue to be effective.”