Sharia law is spreading through Indonesia, and it could get worse

Muslim women taking pics of Christmas display Photo credit: Borderless News

Over the past couple of decades, Indonesia has been a moderate and Democratic Muslim nation, with laws based on the idea that no one has to practice any religion that they don’t want to –even Islam.

That is changing, as Sharia – or Islamic – laws slowly creep in, forcing people in many areas to adhere to laws based on the Muslim religion, whether those people practice Islam or not. Many human rights groups and private citizens say it could get worse, since people are increasingly afraid to speak up, at a time when radical Islamist groups are gaining political power and able to influence the police.

The Christmas season is approaching, and even in majority Muslim Indonesia, people, especially young people, think it’s fun to celebrate this Western holiday. Christmas displays are seen in shopping malls, and even women seen wearing Christmas-colored red and greed hijabs are seen during what many modern Indonesians see as a colorful, festive time. They don’t pay much attention to the religious aspect of Christmas.

But at the same time, a very vocal and very motivated minority, composed of radical groups and private citizens who support them, are pushing for a less tolerant Indonesia, based on Sharia law.

Indeed, earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that Indonesia’s Aceh province has seen more than 500 public floggings since the new Islamic criminal code was implemented in 2015. Hundreds of men and women have received public beatings by authorities for crimes that have no victims, such as kissing outside of marriage, sex outside of marriage, and gambling. Rights groups say such laws violate Indonesia’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, but Indonesian President Joko Widodo has not done much about the problem. Some observers believe he could fear political or public backlash, at a time when radicals, still the minority, are nevertheless very vocal.

Since the country democratized in the late 1990s, the central government has allowed provinces to adopt their own laws. But that process has been accompanied by the spread of Sharia law, and by Sharia rules that discriminate against LGBT people, ban alcohol, and require women to cover their heads. In some areas where Sharia has been enacted, women are forbidden from straddling a motorcycle, and not allowed to hold onto a male driver, since lawmakers feel that will sexually arouse men. In a country where motorcycles are often the main mode of transportation, this is extremely dangerous.

Aceh is the only one of the nation’s 34 provinces that has officially imposed Sharia law. However, many other provinces are enacting Islamist or Sharia laws, either in their legislature or as executive orders from mayors or governors.

One recent study found that 442 new Sharia regulations have been enacted from 2000 to 2012.

Out of those, two-thirds, or 292, were enacted in rural areas, and the rest were put into law by provincial governments. Most took the form of local regulation, which means they were approved by the local legislature, according to a study by Elizabeth Pisani and Michael Buehler, published in Third World Quarterly, an academic journal.

Around 16 percent were put out as executive orders by the leader of the local government, and 254 individual politicians passed religious laws in districts or provinces between 2001 and 2012, the study found.

Most of the regulations had to do with banning alcohol, and the rest deal with promoting Islamic education and other issues. Critics say the laws only apply to people who are poor and powerless, and say that the wealthy get away with things like sex outside of marriage, which is forbidden in areas that have adopted Sharia law.

Last spring, the Constitutional Court ruled that the central government could not repeal Sharia law implemented in local areas. Over the past few years, the government has looked into whether local laws are in compliance with the nation’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. In 2015, home affairs minister Tjahjo Kumolo said “Indonesia is not a religiously-based country,” but failed to take action in the end, leaving Sharia law in place in many provinces.

Human Rights Watch noted that Tjahjo Kumolo initially said he got rid of over 3,000 local laws in 2015 and 2016, but those were concerned mainly with investment, rather than people’s rights.

Extremist groups see Aceh of a shining example of how Islamic law is implemented, and groups such as the hardcore Islamic Defenders Front have visited the area to observe how Sharia law governs the area. Last December, leader Rizieq Shibab made a speech to large crowds in the province’s capital, Banda Aceh, saying Aceh is a “model for the entire Indonesian nation” and that “it must become a locomotive for the movement to apply Shariah law throughout Indonesia. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” shouted back the crowd, according to a New York Times report.

Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal is the current head of Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh, and the city’s first female mayor.

Many voters cast their ballot for her thinking that she’d be progressive, but she’s a hard core enforcer of Sharia law, and has often personally broken up events she deemed incompatible with Islamic principles. She recently barged into a local beauty contest, with TV cameras rolling, and scolded participants for not covering their heads. The young female participants were escorted out of the event by Sharia police, hiding their faces and appearing to be publicly humiliated.

Some observers are afraid that the laws will keep coming, since radical Muslim groups are gaining power after winning a major victory back in May, when radical mobs demanded that the former governor of Jakarta be prosecuted for blasphemy. Jakarta’s former governor Ahok, a Christian and ethnic Chinese, had said that Islam allows Muslims to be ruled by non-Muslims, a statement that enraged radical groups. Extremist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front whipped crowds into a frenzy, and one protest shut down the entire city, and saw a million people in the street.

Politicians now recognize the influence that radical Islam has on society, and may well start to accelerate the rate at which they pass Islamic laws, especially if they think it will get them votes.

At the same time, the past year has seen a crackdown on gays, with police raiding suspected “gay parties” — sometimes accompanied by radical Islamist groups.

There have also been recent instances of crackdowns on Christians, such as a recent incident in which Christians were banned from celebrating the reformation, as police were worried that Christians would use the event to convert Muslims to their religion.


There has always been pockets of extremist Islam in Indonesia, but now it’s starting to gain a foothold, and radical groups are becoming powerful players.

One reason is the success of terror group ISIS. While the group was recently kicked out of its stronghold in the Middle East, it is still an inspiration to would-be jihadis around the world, after conducting attacks in recent years from Paris to Istanbul to London. Extremists believe ISIS’ success means God is on their side.

Extremism is heavily influenced by Wahhabism, a strict version of Islam that comes from Saudi Arabia, and aims to get back to the way Islam was practiced in the days of the Prophet Muhammed.

In the 1800s, Indonesians coming home from the hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able-bodied Muslims – began to bring back the Wahhabi ideology and aimed to use it to revive Islam in Indonesia. Wahhabism also spread through the country at the same time the Dutch started expanding their political role, a development that may have accelerated the spread of Wahhabism.

Stricter versions of Islam started to spread more once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, which made it easier to travel to Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabism. More Indonesians went to study Islam in the Middle East, and Middle Easterners founded institutions in Indonesia that were influenced by stricter forms of Islam. Those include Al-Irsyad (Union for Reformation and Guidance) and Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union) in West Java.

Radical Muslim groups were pushed underground during Suharto’s government, and some were put in prison without trial, since the government considered them a threat.

When Suharto was forced out of office in 1998, many Muslim activists were let out of prison and those who had left the country came back.

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