We Need Science, not Fatwas

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Laila Afifa

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  • TEMPO.CO, JakartaThe ruling, or fatwa, from the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) that concludes the AstraZeneca vaccine haram - forbidden - should not be a consideration in the Covid-19 vaccination program. Matters of health need medical and scientific considerations, not fatwas.

    HE ruling by the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) stating that the AstraZeneca vaccine is haram although it can still be used in an emergency - should be condemned on all sides. If it later transpires that this fatwa leads many people refusing Covid-19 vaccines and Indonesia fails to achieve herd immunity, which is crucially important in controlling the coronavirus pandemic, the MUI must not be allowed to wash its hands. They must take their share of the responsibility.

    The controversy over the MUI fatwa, which was announced on Friday March 19, cannot be taken lightly. Indonesia might be the first nation whose ulemas council declares a vaccine that reduces the risk of people falling victim to a pandemic, haram. After all, this vaccine produced by researchers at Britain's Oxford University working with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has been accepted and used in more than 70 countries around the world. Several of these nations with Muslim majority populations, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Malaysia, are using this vaccine without any fuss over whether it is halal (permissible by Islamic law) or haram.

    On top of this, many doctors and vaccination experts, including researchers at the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM), have confirmed that there are no porcine products in the AstraZeneca vaccine. The production process uses the trypsin enzyme from pigs, but this is in the very early stages and it is not mixed with the final product. Trypsin is often used as a catalyst in the laboratory. Its function is to free virus cells that can then be developed into vaccine. In other words, the vaccine itself does not contain any porcine products.

    The mistaken logic behind the fatwa became even more apparent when the East Java regional Nahdlatul Ulama leadership issued a fatwa stating exactly the opposite. The religious scholars there clearly stated that the AstraZeneca vaccine is holy and halal. This argument is more logical because it takes into account medical facts and is based on science. Therefore, it is only right for people to ask what is happening with the MUI. Why did the body that should comprise wise and respected religious figures issue such a controversial fatwa?

    An investigation by Tempo resulted in a number of interesting findings. Several sources involved in the process of issuing the MUI fatwa mentioned allegations of individuals who tried to negotiate over the matter of the fatwa in return for particular services. If these accusations are true, the validity of the MUI fatwa should rightly be questioned. Vice President Ma'ruf Amin as chairman of the MUI Advisory Council must look into what actually happened.

    Whatever is discovered later, now the cat is out of the bag. The fatwa declaring the AstraZeneca vaccine haram has already been announced. There are those who worry that Covid-19 vaccines will suffer the same fate as the measles rubella (MR) vaccine three years ago when after an MUI fatwa declaring it haram, the number of people who rejected it soared. As a result, the number of children receiving the MR vaccine outside Java fell to less than 50 percent. The government initially targeted 84 percent of the children population there has to be vaccinated.

    The risks involved are easy to imagine because the government plans to import a large quantity of the AstraZeneca vaccine. By the end of this year, the ministry of health is scheduled to receive up to 150 million doses. Assuming everybody needs two vaccinations, this could be used to immunize 75 million people. Imagine the negative consequences if people refuse the AstraZeneca vaccine in large numbers.

    Therefore, the government must move quickly. Public confusion as a result of the halal or haram contradiction must be ended. The way to do this is simple: prioritize rational and scientific arguments. If a vaccine has been declared suitable by medical authorities, religious considerations should no longer be relevant. As long as a vaccine has been scientifically proven to bring health benefits, there is no need for a fatwa.

    The government must use this controversy over the Covid-19 vaccine haram fatwa to spur on a resolution of the issue of health and religion. It is very dangerous if religious reasoning is linked to medical issues concerning benefits to the people. Advice based on religious considerations should only relate to religious matters, not those outside religion. Matters of health should be resolved by the health authorities. This kind of clarification is extremely important in the midst of a crisis or pandemic emergency like this one.

    Read the Complete Story in Tempo English Magazine