Malaysia backs down from yoga ban amid backlash

KUALA LUMPUR Wed Nov 26, 2008 8:30am EST

1 of 3. A woman practices yoga at a centre in Kuala Lumpur November 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Zainal Abd Halim

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's prime minister said Wednesday Muslims should still take up yoga, reversing an outright ban that has drawn widespread protests amid concerns over growing Islamic fundamentalism in the multiracial nation.

Malaysia's National Fatwa Council, comprising Islamic scholars, told Muslims at the weekend to avoid yoga because it uses Hindu prayers that could erode Muslims' faith.

But the decision drew a sharp rebuke from many Muslims and even Malaysia's sultans, or hereditary rulers, who said that they should be consulted on any matters involving Islam.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi moved to contain the damage, telling the national news agency Bernama that Muslims could carry on doing yoga but minus the chanting.

"I wish to state that a physical regime with no elements of worship can continue, meaning, it is not banned. I believe that Muslims are not easily swayed into polytheism," he said.

Just before Abdullah spoke, the eldest son of the ruler of the central Negeri Sembilan state took the government to task over the yoya ruling.

"Islam is a progressive religion and the ulama (scholars) should be confident of the followers' faith rather than micro-managing their way of life," Tunku Naquiyuddin told a luncheon.

"If I go to a church or a Buddhist temple, is there any fear of me converting? ... Where do we draw the line?" the online version of the Star newspaper quoted him as saying.

The yoga fatwa ruling came hot on the heels of another edict against young Muslim women wearing trousers.

Fatwas or religious edicts are not legally binding, but they are highly influential in Malaysia, where Malay-Muslims form just over half of the country's 27 million people.

The fatwa council has said that by wearing trousers, girls risked becoming sexually active "tomboys." Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

Malaysia's sizeable minorities include ethnic Chinese and Indians who practice either Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism.

(Reporting by Jalil Hamid)

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