Moderate Muslim voices drowned out in Indonesia

Nation risks a Balkans-style break-up if Islamist hardliners get their way
Moderate Muslim voices drowned out in Indonesia

A 21-year-old Muslim woman is caned in public on Oct. 29 after being caught in close proximity with her boyfriend in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh is the only province in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country that imposes Sharia and people can be flogged for offenses including gambling, drinking alcohol, gay sex or relations outside marriage. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)

It was a small turnout on Nov. 23 outside the Jakarta offices of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country's main Islamic body. Some 30 members of the Indonesian Youth Santri Coalition demanded that the MUI issue an edict — a fatwa — declaring as haram (unclean) a vote for the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) in legislative elections next April.

A rumor floated around the staunchly Muslim community of West Sumatra that such an edict had been issued, but the local branch of the MUI denied the rumor.

Edict or no, the PSI has little hope of gaining power in the legislative election and may not even get enough votes to pass the 4 percent threshold to take a seat in the national parliament. But it's still making waves.

Party leader Grace Natalie had stated at the PSI's fourth anniversary celebrations that it would not support any regional regulations based on religious principles, whether stated in the Quran or the Bible. That earned a police report on behalf of the Indonesian Muslim Workers Brotherhood (PPMI) from hardline Muslim lawyer and activist Eggi Sudjana, saying she had insulted religion.

"She must apologize, and since her statement was deemed to express hostility, it could also be categorized as hate speech against religions," thundered Sudjana.

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Natalie was questioned by police for six hours on Nov. 22 in connection with Sudjana's report. Natalie, backed by a number of party members and reinforced with documents including the constitution, which declares Indonesia a secular state, told reporters later that she had received a flood of support for her position. Police said they were continuing their investigation.

Natalie founded the PSI in 2014 as an alternative to the mainstream political parties. Often dubbed the "party of millennials," it isn't seen as a real threat to the establishment but has demonstrated an ability to grab media attention.

In questioning religion-based regional regulations, Natalie was echoing the fears of many who believe Indonesia has been hijacked by religious interests. While no recent tally has been made, in 2014 there were 422 local regulations based on Islamic law. A researcher found that 40 percent attempted to govern morality and another 15 percent were concerned with giving alms.

While the government, through the Home Affairs Ministry, has rolled back many regional regulations that contravene the nation's secular ideology of Pancasila or restrict foreign investment, it has tended not to touch by-laws based on Muslim law, or Sharia.

Sharia-based principles attempt to govern behavior such as women straddling motorcycles or dancing in public places. They are most common in Aceh, which under a deal agreed in 2005 in an attempt to end a long-running separatist movement was allowed to apply a degree of Sharia.

Other staunchly Muslim areas such as West Sumatra and Gorontalo have followed the lead. In Tangerang, right next to Jakarta, selling alcohol is banned.

Human Rights Watch has been warning for years that these by-laws, by setting standards of what is right and wrong, disproportionately target Indonesian women.

Moderate Muslims have attempted to cool the passions. Muhammad Abdullah Darraz, executive director of the Maarif Institute, said Natalie's comments didn't deserve to be criminalized. Her comments on regional regulations based on religion should be used as an opportunity to educate the public and create healthy debate, he said.

Vice-presidential nominee Ma'ruf Amin, who stood down as head of the MUI to run for office with incumbent President Joko Widodo, tried to take a middle way. "There is no need to polemicize it," Amin said on a visit to a religious school. Since Sharia regulations are formulated at regional level, it means those regions must need them, he argued.

He would not oppose by-laws of other religions if their followers felt the need to enact them too. The Bible could become a source of law, he added. "If residents in the regions can prove that the Bible was the first [religious scripture] there, it's their right," he said, adding that the issue should not be debated.

Amin is lending Islamic weight to the re-election bid of President Widodo but many liberals might prefer someone who thinks like Natalie. But liberals remain a minority of the vote and the electorate is becoming more conservative, not liberal.

For Natalie, fighting to get her party's name into the headlines, provoking the hardliners can be useful. She earned support from one potential voter who tweeted "Grace Natalie has bigger balls than most Indonesian male politicians." That tweet was retweeted nearly 600 times.

The same is true for the Muslim hardliners. They lie in wait for perceived breaches of religious sanctity, ready to pounce with a lawsuit that will convince their followers that they are the true defenders of the faith and that somehow their religion is at risk from hidden enemies.

Rational Muslim voices like that of the Maarif Institute are being increasingly squeezed out of the debate. And while Natalie might be able to speak out on behalf of oppressed minorities, the same regional regulations that she argues against are increasingly used to stifle debate.

That leaves a few pockets of the country wondering what their future is in an Indonesia increasingly dominated by Muslim fundamentalism. A Balinese businessman, asked how he feels about the potential for Islamist domination, says "we'll move the island to Australia."

While that may be a light-hearted response to a serious question, there remains a risk of a Balkans-style break-up of the country if the Islamist hardliners get their way. Christian-majority areas such as East Nusa Tenggara, North Sulawesi and Papua and Hindu Bali, for instance, might fear that they had no future in the republic. For that reason, cooling off hot-headed Muslim radicals remains the country's most important homework.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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