A proposed ban on alcohol in Indonesia is being seen as another attack on the customs and traditions of non-Muslims. (Photo: Unsplash)
The recent endorsement of a bill to ban alcohol by some Islamic factions in Indonesia’s parliament has raised fears in some quarters that it is part of a plot to impose Sharia law.
The bill was proposed by 21 legislators, mainly from Islamist parties like the United Development Party, Prosperous Justice Party and the nationalist Gerindra Party.
It aims to ban the production, storage, distribution and consumption of liquor in Indonesia.
Tough punishments could await violators, with the notorious Islamic Defenders Front proposing that they include caning as part of the sentence.
The bill proposes jailing people found consuming alcohol for up to three years and a fine of about US$4,000, while those producing it could face up to 10 years and a $70,000 fine.
Although many doubt it will pass, its very introduction has caused a stir, adding to the existing tension since the return of radical cleric Muhammad Rizieq Syihab from exile in Saudi Arabia.
It also generates more mistrust towards lawmakers whom people feel engage in too much politicking rather than working for the betterment of society.
A survey by news portal Detik.com revealed the majority of its readers disagreed with the proposed legislation, with some highlighting the contribution of the liquor industry — about $427 million annually — to state coffers.
The amount looks insignificant since the drinkers are mostly non-Muslim, but any effort to kill the industry would be disastrous, causing a loss to the state and more unemployment.
However, the bill's predicted impact on the economy is not the only thing that has people feeling uneasy.
The endorsement on Nov. 10 is thought-provoking, as it occurred the same day the fugitive Syihab returned from exile.
It appears coincidental, but some consider it another attempt by Islamist groups to expand the influence of Islamic Sharia to regions where Muslims are not in the majority.
Although Indonesia is mostly Muslim, there are some regions where other faiths dominate, such as the popular tourist destination Bali, which is mostly Hindu, and the Christian-majority regions of Papua and East Nusa Tenggara.
Muslim organizations such as the Indonesian Ulema Council, Muhammadiyah, the Islamic Defenders Front and the 212 Alumni Brotherhood back the bill as they consider alcohol a “moral illness” and for health and public order reasons. They denied claims it was an Islamization effort.
But opposition to the bill has grown among civil society and religious groups. Legal experts argue such a ban is unnecessary because alcohol is well regulated in the Criminal Code and government regulations.
The new bill, if passed, has the potential to overwhelm further a criminal justice system which has been overburdened by anti-narcotics laws that have seen thousands of users end up in prison.
In non-Muslim-majority areas, the idea of a liquor ban revives the age-old battle against the concept of halal. Halal simply means that everything should be Islam friendly, but in pluralist Indonesia non-Muslims are not overly keen on giving up their customs to please Muslims.
This underlying tension is worsened by some politicians or government officials who, under pressure from Muslims or through seeking more votes, often go too far in infringing on the rights of non-Muslims.
This has included refusing Christians permission to build churches despite them having a legal permit to do so.
Similarly, a communal conflict almost broke out in Labuan Bajo last year on Catholic-majority Flores island when Muslims objected to local people selling pork and alcoholic beverages.
The area is seen as the gateway to Komodo island, home to the world-famous dragon, which attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world each year.
The governor of East Nusa Tenggara was forced to intervene and say it would be inappropriate to allow such a demand in such a prime tourist destination.
To many, an alcohol ban is being seen in a similar light and that imposing the rules of one religion on others would damage peace and harmony that has long been established in the country.
Legislators should not waste their time in trying to create such divisive laws. Instead, they should focus more on solving problems and addressing more urgent issues such as indigenous people's rights, economic hardship and crime.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.