The top Islamic council in Indonesia officially issued a “fatwa” against the Rubella-Measles vaccine, declaring it to be “haram” — religiously forbidden — because it contains traces of pork and human cells.
The declaration comes from the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), which is chaired by Ma’ruf Amin, who recently announced he would be the running mate of Indonesian President Joko Widodo in the next presidential election.
The fatwa supposedly still allows for Muslims to use the vaccine until an Islam-approved one is created, but that hasn’t stopped the vaccination rates from plummeting.
“We’ve found ourselves in a position where we have no choice … there has not been a vaccine found to be halal and sacred,” an MUI official told CNN Indonesia.
He said the religious organisation understood the dangers associated with not getting children immunised.
However, CNN Indonesia reported that a number of towns had already suspended the vaccine before the MUI even announced their decision.
Tim Lindsey, the director of the Centre for Indonesian Law in the University of Melbourne, told the ABC the fatwa would undoubtedly make accessing the vaccination more difficult in Indonesia.
This fatwa doesn’t mean that all Indonesians — or even all Indonesian Muslims — are required to cease use of the measles vaccine, which could be incredibly dangerous if it actually happened. But fatwas are still incredibly powerful, and experts say there’s no doubt that this will be a problem going forward. That’s in part because those who have any doubts at all about the vaccine now have a religious excuse for avoiding them.
Fatwas are not legally binding in Indonesia, however declarations from the MUI are highly influential.
“If there’s a MUI fatwa opposing it, that will be a real obstacle to public health efforts,” Professor Lindsey said.
It’s entirely possible Amin is using this fatwa and the MUI in general as political tools to impact the election. The group receives funding from the government of Indonesia, and Amin has used it to impact politics in the past. For starters, he accused a politician of blasphemy and had him jailed because a fatwa was used as evidence in his criminal trial.
One fatwa issued by Mr Amin was crucial in the trial of Jakarta’s former minority Christian-Chinese governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, who was subsequently jailed under blasphemy charges.
The fatwa sparked a mass movement which saw more than 150,000 Indonesians protests in the streets of Jakarta calling for Ahok’s arrest.
“There’s a pattern that’s emerged in Indonesia. In minority groups and cases of blasphemy, fatwas are relied on in court as evidence,” Professor Lindsey said.
Under no circumstances should a religious ruling (from a non-governmental body, no less) be used as evidence against someone in court. But that’s what is happening in Indonesia all the time. And considering Amin’s MUI has also issued fatwas against secularism and liberalism, it could also imperil the atheists in the country who are already in danger.
Professor Lindsey said the MUI has high levels of government support, which legitimises them in the eyes of the public.
“The Indonesian democratic system is under threat from this conservative Islamist position and MUI is one of the organisations that’s leading that charge.”
This is a scary precedent, especially considering how many lives are at stake. Let’s hope reasonable voices can prevail and scientific organizations can step up to fill the void of good information created by religious fundamentalist groups that continue to create obstacles to life-saving vaccines.
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