|JAKARTA, Oct 31 – When the outgoing regional Parliament in Aceh passed a criminal law last month that condemns adulterers to death by stoning, the uproar reached Indonesia’s capital and beyond.In Depok, a West Java town not far from Jakarta, karaoke lounges were ordered to be shut by the end of this week by Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).Then there was the case of Indonesian beauty queen Qori Sandioriva. She won the Miss Indonesia Universe contest last month as a representative of Aceh but was castigated for not wearing the Muslim headscarf.A growing desire for all things halal, or permissible in Islam, has even prompted the country’s brewery Bintang to produce a non-alcoholic beer called Bintang Zero. More such products could hit supermarket shelves if a Bill before Parliament to require more products to be labelled halal gets passed.
Some Indonesians are expressing concern that such developments are signs of a rise in conservatism and intolerance among Muslims in Indonesia. They say they illustrate the growing assertiveness of some Muslims who have spoken up against everything that offends their religious sensitivities.
“Indonesians are becoming more conservative as some of them even want karaoke lounges shut down,” said Dr Syafii Anwar, director of the Jakarta-based International Centre for Islam and Pluralism. “The Depok mayor is over-reacting to complaints by some Muslims that karaoke lounges are bad.”
He also thinks that growing piety among Muslims is pushing the demand for halal products, “hence the timely Bill on halal labelling”.
Zuhairi Misrawi, the head of the Jakarta-based Moderate Muslim Society, said he senses rising intolerance among some of the country’s majority Muslim population.
The Depok mayor could have been pressured by Muslim conservatives in West Java to shut down the karaoke lounges, he said. “It’s not unusual,” added Zuhairi.
His organisation, which has an English name, seeks to speak on behalf of the moderates and project the face of peaceful Islam in hopes of convincing Muslims to accept pluralism in culturally diverse Indonesia.
“The problem is that we still have small groups of extremist elements among us,” he said.
The stoning law is applicable only in Aceh province, where Islamic syariah law is allowed. But its passage raised concern that Jakarta could allow such a law to be enacted anywhere in a secular country that trumpets its religious tolerance in its Pancasila Bill of Rights.
Opposition to stoning has come not just from human rights groups and people outside the province, but also many Acehnese themselves.
“This stoning Bill only promotes violence in Islam, which is not what Islam teaches us,” said Fitri, a 25-year-old university student in Banda Aceh. She says she did not expect the law to be enforced, or even remain on the books much longer.
Syariah law lecturer Ismail Hasani, of the Jakarta State Islamic University, said the controversial stoning law contradicts the country’s Constitution.
“It criminalises women and minority groups,” he said.
Political science professor Bachtiar Effendy expressed another concern. “Why did the Aceh Parliament focus itself on stoning for adulterers when there are other important issues they can champion such as stamping out corruption and promoting people’s welfare?” he asked.
Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf refused to sign the law, known as Qanun Jinayat, after it was passed but it became law automatically after 30 days.
The governor has directed the new regional Aceh Parliament to review the law, however.
Regional Parliament Speaker Hasbi Abdullah said in Bandar Aceh on Thursday: “The article on stoning needs to be revised most urgently because it is not suitable for the community in Aceh.”
He said the people of Aceh were not ready for such a law because it went against the spirit of basic human rights.
But the debate over which way to lean will continue among Muslims, even among those who frown on hardline interpretations of Islam.
Dr Bachtiar Effendy, who teaches political science at the State Islamic University in Ciputat, Jakarta, does not think that developments like those in Aceh and his own city are evidence that Indonesians are becoming more conservative.
While not a conservative, he supports the move to close down karaoke lounges in the town. “These lounges are a cover for prostitution,” he said.
An indication that perhaps Indonesians are not keen on conservative Islam was reflected in the April general election. Islam-leaning parties such as PKS, National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP) suffered a drop in support from 38 per cent in 2004, to less than 26 per cent.
Analysts said voters seemed to be sending a message on the brand of Islam they preferred.
Even in Aceh, voters booted out the Islamic parties in favour of the nationalist Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the Aceh Party, formed by former separatist rebels.
IN KUALA LUMPUR, the man who heads Selangor’s branch of the Islamist party PAS wants beer sales banned in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods.
Datuk Dr Hasan Ali also claims that mosque officials in the state will soon have the power to arrest Muslims for selling and storing alcoholic drinks.
Such a hardline stance, among a slew of other Islamic policies, has raised the hackles of Malaysians of other religions, who say such policies infringe on their own rights.
Malaysia’s Muslims, by contrast, have said little or nothing to protest against such policies. “The issue is not whether the measures are accepted. They are already accepted,” said Razak Idris, president of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, or Abim. “In the Malaysian Muslim society now, the level of awareness and the commitment to Islamic practices have become very high.”
But political infighting over whether or not to press an Islamic agenda is threatening to split PAS itself.
Some are pushing for policies viewed as hardline. Others want PAS to chart a more moderate path in cooperation with the diverse partners that comprise the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.
Meanwhile, the mass-selling Malay-language Utusan Malaysia daily and the ruling Umno party are trying to take advantage of the challenges facing the opposition. Ramping up the racial and religious rhetoric, they are warning Malays that Islam is under threat from the rise of PR, with the underlying claim that Umno is more Islamic than PAS.
Indeed, the rise of Islamisation can be traced to 1981, when then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced the Inculcation of Islamic Values Policy, an attempt to inject Islamic values into the civil service in order to boost efficiency and reduce corruption. Malaysia was promoted as a model Muslim country.
But it was also a political agenda aimed at challenging the increasingly popular opposition PAS.
In 2001, Dr Mahathir said that PAS’s calls for an Islamic state were redundant as Malaysia was already one. PAS was no longer the only party seen as working for Islam — and thus began the political tussle to outdo each other on the Islamic agenda.
But caught in the middle are the moderate Muslims. While groups such as Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-governmental organisation that advocates justice for Muslim women, and former Umno member and Cabinet minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who is now Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s latest recruit, have protested against such developments, few others have raised their voices.
Razak believes that this is because most Muslims accepted such moves as necessary to maintain a model Islamic society. “Consuming or selling alcohol contradicts tenets of Islam. The majority of Muslims accept such actions by the government,” he told The Straits Times.
“I am not sure if these measures can be described as increased Islamisation. It is prevention to maintain social harmony among Muslims.”
Others believe it is not that easy to read the prevailing mood. While it is true most Muslim women wear a scarf today — an oddity in the 1970s — some activists feel most remain moderate.
Datuk Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Dr Mahathir who has been outspoken on women’s issues, said it is the fear of being seen as un-Islamic that keeps the silent majority from speaking out against hardline policies.
“People are silent due to the fear of being attacked by those who claim to have better religious credentials,” she told The Straits Times. “But we are not questioning Islam; we are questioning man-made laws. If we let it be and don’t fight them, they might well win. Even if we seem to be in the minority, we can’t keep quiet.”
Marina pointed out that the kind of snoop squads that Terengganu has proposed to spy on couples can be prone to abuse. “You have this in Saudi Arabia, Iran,” she said. “These are hardly examples of moderate Muslim countries, and yet we are trying to portray ourselves as that.”
On a lighter note, political commentator Farish Noor lamented in a recent column that all fun had been stamped out of Hari Rayaï when “mullah-wannabes began to preach from the pulpit about the evils of fun and happiness”. He wrote: “We were told that music was haram (meaning ‘forbidden’), that the oil lamps were Hindu, that fireworks were decadent and corrupt.”
Still, such controversies do not really bother Mariam Abdullah, 30, or her friends. She sees herself as a typical middle-class working mother.
She said she wears the scarf only because her mother and husband tell her to. She conceded that there are some Muslims who would be upset by strict Islamic rules, but added: “I don’t know them.”
She said: “Most people don’t care or mind. The older folk are fine with it, and nobody I know is complaining.” She condemned groups such as the SIS for being “too liberal”, and critics who oppose hudud laws, which prescribe stoning for adulterers and amputation for thieves.
Abim’s Razak said it would be unpopular for the government to apply policies that defied Islam these days. The challenge now was “to promote an Islam which is moderate in its values and modern in approach and flexible in its views”.
He added: “It is going to be a challenging task with the current clash between conservative and liberal Islam. But if you compare Malaysia with other Muslim countries, we are more open in our approach.” — Straits Times