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21 Sep 2018 9:52
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  •   Home > News > International

    Fatwas, niqabs and 'acceptable standards': Is conservative Islam on the rise across Indonesia?

    In the latest interpretation of sharia law in Aceh province, it is forbidden for women to sit at cafe tables with men they are not married or related to, and for unaccompanied women to be served after 9:00pm.

    In the latest interpretation of sharia law in Indonesia's Aceh province, it is now "haram" — or religiously forbidden — for a woman to sit at the same cafe table as a man she is not married or related to.

    The local government notice issued in one small Aceh city also advised businesses not to serve women after 9:00pm, unless they were accompanied by a male family member or husband.

    Those were just two of 14 listed "acceptable standards" for restaurant and cafe patrons, and the latest in a string of events highlighting the rise of Islamic conservatism across the Indonesian archipelago.

    The most notable in recent weeks was the imprisonment of a minority Buddhist ethnic-Chinese woman, known as Meiliana, after she complained about the volume of a mosque's call to prayer.

    The country also saw kindergarten students parade in niqabs and fake assault rifles, as well as a fatwa that claimed the life-saving measles vaccine contained haram substances.

    The list of standards for hospitality businesses was released by a local mayor in Aceh, where Islamic criminal law works hand-in-hand with the largely secular laws of Indonesia.

    While not legally binding, it illustrates the entanglement of politics and religion in the country, which some say has been exacerbated by President Joko Widodo's recent appointment of a hardline Islamic cleric as his 2019 presidential running mate.

    So what is happening in a country that is one of Australia's closest neighbours? Has it become more conservatively Islamic?

    More than 200 cases of religious freedom violations

    The independent Indonesian think tank Setara Institute found Jakarta to be the most religiously intolerant city in the majority Muslim country, with 23 accounts of violations so far this year.

    While results from Aceh — where sharia law has been introduced — have not been released this year, last year's results found West Java and Jakarta were far more intolerant.

    Reported incidents included discrimination, assault, hate speech and the sealing of houses of worship for other religious groups — as well as a disproportionate impact of blasphemy laws on minority groups.

    The organisation also found 201 cases of religious freedom violations across the country's 20 provinces, mostly towards minorities.

    Associate professor at the Australian National University, Greg Fealy, said there had been a greater frequency of cases of rising conservatism in the past decade.

    "We have too many cases of what I would regard as violations of religious freedom of speech, but conservatism somewhat fuels that process," he said.

    However, he said it was too complex a matter to simply take a national snapshot based on these events.

    Some experts believe the trend started in 2017 during a conservative Islamic-backed movement which saw the removal of Jakarta's former minority Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more commonly known as Ahok.

    Deputy chairman of the Setara Institute, Bonar Tigor Naipospos, said politicising religion was a very effective way to mobilise large numbers of people.

    "And Pak Ma'ruf Amin [Mr Widodo's running mate] is one of the main keys to awakening the wave of intolerance in Indonesia," he said.

    Muslim majority, not 'Muslim country'

    Indonesia is the largest Muslim society in the world, with 87 per cent of its 270 million people identifying as Muslim.

    However religious pluralism and tolerance are considered to be part of Indonesia's five founding principles of Pancasila.

    "Indonesia has chosen its own way by choosing Pancasila as a middle road, by stating we are not secular, but we are not a Muslim country," Mr Naipospos said.

    But survey data presented by Dr Fealy show middle-class Indonesians are expressing increasingly intolerant views.

    "They're the kinds of people who would rather not have a non-Muslim teaching their kids, living beside them or doing business with them," he said.

    In 2017, more than half a million people took to the streets of Jakarta in a successful public pressure campaign under the banner of "defenders of Islam".

    It became a wake up call to moderate Muslims in the country who believed Islamic fundamentalism existed only on the fringe.

    It was also a turning point for the country's moderate brand of Islam.

    Some are concerned the current trajectorywill result in a more conservative Islamic country — similar to Iran's abandonment of secularism following the Islamic Revolution in 1978-1979, and the Islamic revival following Anwar Sadat's death in Egypt.

    Those events saw both cultures shift away from secularism following a change of government, but Dr Fealy does not think Indonesia will follow the same path.

    "At the moment, being a Muslim is quite a trendy thing to do particularly in the middle class," he said.

    "While it's possible that sections of society will continue to grow more conservatively Islamic and intolerant … we should be careful about assuming that Indonesia will continue in some kind of inexorable Islamisation curve over the next 20 years."

    Baby death following vaccine fatwa

    A baby in the Muslim-majority province of Jambi recently died from the rubella virus.

    The mother contracted the disease during pregnancy, and her child was born with defects due to it.

    It came after peak Islamic body Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), released a fatwa saying the vaccine for measles-rubella contained "haram" substances.

    The council said it contained traces of pork and human cells, which are religiously forbidden.

    While they still allowed its use due to the importance of the vaccine, the decree reportedly hindered immunisation drives in Muslim-majority provinces.

    Aman Pulungan, president of the Indonesian Paediatric Society, said it was a matter of great urgency.

    "The main issue is a lack of access to the vaccines, which has been made complicated by involving religion," he said.

    "The timing for the fatwa has definitely posed a hindrance."

    Political tool or a shift to the 'right'?

    Mr Widodo's decision to select Ma'ruf Amin, a hardline Islamic cleric, as his running mate has seen him face criticism that he may be conceding to conservative Islamic forces.

    Independent voter surveyor Poll Tracking Indonesia found more than 58 per cent of Indonesian voters take into account the religious credentials of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

    With the 2019 presidential elections looming, analysts have said the race has become a question of who is "more Muslim".

    "In the educated middle class, there has been resistance towards Ma'ruf Amin and a sense of disappointment," Mr Naipospos said.

    Mr Widodo's inability to protect his former ally Ahok in 2017 has exposed the Government's apparent vulnerability to mass political movements under the banner of Islam.

    Meanwhile, his decision to ban a number of hardline Islamist groups in response has fuelled opposition groups.

    Dr Fealy said Mr Widodo's decision to choose Mr Amin was a political move aimed at removing the issue of religion as a potential vulnerability.

    "Jokowi doesn't bring Islam into the political realm … he's never tried to use [religion] to get an advantage over his opponent," he said.

    "By contrast, [opposition leader] Prabowo Subianto is from a religiously plural family and he's not particularly Islamic … however, he has a long history of using religion for political purposes.

    "The reality is that in the presidential elections next year, we have two figures who don't have all that high Islamic credibility by themselves."

    Indonesia has never had a president, or vice-presidential candidate, who was not a Muslim — highlighting the close relationship between the religion and politics.

    Mr Naipospos thinks the relationship between religion and politics in Indonesia will continue to strengthen in the foreseeable future, but he remains hopeful Indonesia's future will still be one of its own brand of secularism.

    "The issue of religion and politics [in Indonesia] is always dynamic," he said.

    "One moment, religion can be stronger than politics, but that pendulum can swing."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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