Sun, 24 Aug 2003

Muslim communities put fire into antismoking drive

It has become the source of a good giggle at Langitan pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Tuban, East Java, the tale of a student who threw a cigarette butt on the floor of the toilet where he was sneaking a smoke.

It causing a small fire and explosion, as well as minor burns to his bottom.

"What a commotion it caused, to be sure," Lily Qurrotul Ishaqiyah, the wife of deputy head of the boarding school Abdullah Munif, said with a twinkle in her eye.

The young man has since stopped smoking, said Abdullah Munif, noting that his pride was hurt the most.

He had been reduced to the act because, for the past six years, the school has been smoke-free, following a restriction on smoking imposed by its charismatic leader Abdullah Faqih 20 years ago. Today, even nearby sidewalk stalls have notices stating "we do not sell cigarettes" plastered across their walls.

Faqih began by prohibiting smoking for students under 17 years old, and gradually revised the ruling so that only mature students over 26 years old may smoke outside of the school complex, where 5,000 students learn under the instruction of about 500 teachers.

Even today, Faqih's first announcement of the smoking ban that he himself wrote in Arabic is still being copied and pasted in various spots in the complex that occupies a seven-hectare plot of land in Tuban. In the announcement, he threatened a fine of Rp 10,000 on those found smoking inside the compound.

"That fine is actually a light punishment, because we have had occasions when violators experienced pepe (being made to stand in the sun), which could actually be a healthy punishment, don't you think, because it's only two hours in the morning sun," Lily said.

There are thousands of boarding schools affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama-learning institutions where a kyai (Muslm cleric) is the central figure and so revered that his word is the law. In many of the schools, even the youngest students smoke because they see kyai and their elders smoke.

Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim organization, recently established its own cigarette factory, Bintang Bola Dunia, even though its leaders admit that smoking is haram (unlawful in Islam).

Defending the contradiction, a deputy chief of the organization recently told the BBC that "yes, smoking is haram, but it is not a very strong prohibition" -- an oxymoron if there ever was one, because in Islam when something is haram in a large amount, it is haram in even the smallest amount.

Smoke-free Langitan is a rarity, because it is a Nahdlatul Ulama school and its political affiliation is the same as other Nahdlatul Ulama schools.

"We are a salafi boarding school," said Munif, referring to a tradition in Islamic teaching that is derived directly from the Koran and Prophet Muhammad's sayings and deeds (hadith), as opposed to many of the Nahdlatul Ulama schools who give students "traditional" khalaf instruction.

"Here we understand that tobacco is the gateway to drugs," Munif said, quoting the Koranic verse that says, "make not your own hands contribute to your destruction".

Students also take a religious oath against smoking.

"We have hopes that of the thousands of students that leave here and work elsewhere will also tell their students not to smoke," Munif said.

Dr. Anhari Achadi and Dr Soewarta Kosen, both experts at the Ministry of Health in Jakarta, agree that an individual's decision to smoke affects other people. The health risks of passive smoking are high.

Non-smokers married to smokers, for example, have an increased risk of lung cancers by 25 percent to 35 percent, and those exposed to a heavy smoke environment for the longest time had the highest risks.

Nearly all Indonesian smokers (91.8 percent) smoke at home, and there are no clean air laws for most public places. The effect of passive smoke can cause lasting health damage via increased incidence of pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, ear infections and reduced lung capacity, the doctors say in an unpublished paper, Refuting Myths about Tobacco (Jakarta, 2003).

On the other hand, an individual's decision not to smoke, particularly those in influential positions such as Kyai Haji Abdullah Faqih, affects other people in a beneficial way.

Langitan's position is actually not strange for an increasing number of Muslim communities in the country.

Activists of Forum Silaturahim Remaja Masjid (Mosque-based Youth Activists Forum), whose network covers approximately 5,000 mosques in Yogyakarta and other areas in Central Java, have no hesitation in calling smoking haram (forbidden by Islam) and smokers as ill-mannered, rude and un-Islamic people.

Muhammad Jazir ASP, a leading figure in the forum and also the Muslim movement in the region, is the founder of Pusat Pengembangan Al Quran learning center in nearby Kota Gede, where some 750 students are told from a very early age that smoking is haram.

Another ulama, Umar Budhiargo, leads a chain of six pesantren in Yogyakarta, Padang in West Sumatra, Serpong and Bojong Gede in West Java, and in Riau where some 1,250 students from the kindergartens up to high schools, as well as their teachers, are prohibited from smoking.

The two ulamas work closely together in their antitobacco campaigns. Not only smoking is forbidden, cigarette vendors or posters are barred from all of the school complexes. Further, no tobacco-sponsorship is accepted for any of the activities that the forum organizes.

"In Yogyakarta, most of the mubaligh (callers to Islam) and da'i do not smoke. We are even engaged in campaigns against smoking because there are more harms in smoking than its uses," Jazir said in Yogyakarta.

"This stance is actually part of the aqidah -- the core teaching of Islam. Smoking is a legacy of an ancient, ignorant tradition of the fire-worshipers, the Zoroaster."

"Smokers are among the rudest, ill-mannered people, because their smoke hurts other people, their ash falls everywhere, and they do not care about their people. This is very un-Islamic because Islam actually teaches Muslims never to harm and hurt other people," he said, adding that students are taught from an early age how smoking harms them and those around them.

The teachers in Taruna Al Quran schools (which range from kindergarten to high school) that Umar Budhiargo founded apply the same strict rules against smoking.

"So far no student or teacher has been caught smoking, none of our cooperative stores sell cigarettes," said one of the teachers. "This stance comes naturally when nobody here smokes or tolerates people smoking."

Gearing up to contest the 2004 election, the Justice and Welfare Party now has approximately 300,000 officials across the country, as well as 180 members in various decision-making positions both in the House of Representatives, and the provincial and regency-level legislative councils. It has an estimated three million supporters, mostly from among young Muslim students.

Teaching the young is an important part of the Muslim-based party's health development program. "None of our officials smoke, we are confident of this," said Basuki Supartono, the chief of the party's health department in Jakarta.

"We are creating a situation among us where people are ashamed to smoke, much as the women would be ashamed not to wear their jilbab (Muslim headscarves)," Basuki added. "We are able to do this because we have an ongoing tarbiyah (educational) system, one that helps people to leave behind bad habits for good."

In Jakarta, one of the main programs of the party is education for members of low-income groups, including the ojek (motorcycle taxis) drivers who usually ply areas where buses and other public transport do not serve.

"We help them with food and education," said Ahmad Heryawan, chief of the party's Jakarta chapter, about the assistance to 1,000 drivers.

"We help them see why they should stop smoking. We try to help them realize that smoking is not only bad for their health, but also wastes their hard-earned money."

-- Santi W.E. Soekanto