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Does Facebook lead to adultery?

That's the logic of some powerful Muslim clerics in Indonesia. But others would be happy to "friend" you.

A group of Muslim clerics from Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, the Nahdatul Ulama, is concerned Facebook could be used to flirt, leading to illicit affairs, adultery or worse. (Supri/Reuters)

JAKARTA — The country briefly dizzied itself this past week after a group of Muslim clerics from the country’s largest Islamic organization, the Nahdatul Ulama, recommended creating rules to govern how Muslims use Facebook — again pitting the nation’s religious against its increasing modernity.

The clerical bunch were concerned the social-networking site could be used to flirt, leading to illicit affairs, adultery or worse. Their concerns are certainly not a stretch and it’s not the first time the issue has come up. Muslim leaders here had similar concerns with Friendster and MySpace in previous years.

But this time a frantic Indonesian press jumped all over the story and in its haste grossly exaggerated it. A slew of stories incorrectly said the clerics had issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, that outright banned the popular site for Muslims.

Fatwas are not legally binding but it is considered a sin if a Muslim doesn’t abide by the ruling. A bevy of bizarre rulings in recently years, however, has hurt the credibility of some of the country’s leading Muslim organizations and the public is increasingly less likely to follow them. The Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious authority, was widely ridiculed last year when it considered banning yoga.

Fatwas are front page news here and often lead to a national debate. So when the local press reported Facebook was now forbidden, Indonesians, who are obsessed with all kinds of socializing, let their disapproval rain. Sensing the public relations disaster, the clerics quickly backpedaled.

Facebook is essentially the modern incarnation of the Indonesian coffee shop, where Indonesians often sit for hours gossiping and meeting new people. With less than 1 percent of Indonesians connected to the Internet, the coffee shop still reigns supreme. But that hasn’t stopped Facebook from becoming the most visited website here. The company has said it sees tremendous growth potential in Indonesia as more and more far flung villages get wired.

In fact, Indonesia, which has the world’s largest population of Muslims and is the world’s fourth most populous country, also has the most Facebook users outside of the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy.

And Muslim clerics are no exception.