Indonesia grapples with sweeping Islamic laws 

Indonesia looks like it might have received a reprieve from the parliamentary bid to create an Islamist state. 

Indonesia’s president has moved to delay a vote on controversial laws that would outlaw sex outside marriage amid claims it will harm the tourist trade. 

However, the prevailing trend in Indonesia is firmly in the direction of Islamisation with concepts of pluralism pushed aside in favour of the monolithic will of the Muslim majority. 

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said the new laws needed more consideration and has tried to delay tomorrow (Tuesday’s) vote on the 628-article draft bill. 

The shift towards Islamisation is felt most acutely in Aceh. 

Last year presented the appalling prosecution of a Sumatran teenage girl and her mother because an abortion was arranged as the teenager was pregnant after being raped by her brother. 

The 15-year-old from Jambi province on Sumatra was sentenced to six months for having a termination while her rapist brother, 18, only received a two-year sentence. 

Rather than being an isolated example of the barbaric sharia law that has been allowed to prevail in Aceh as a compromise to end the civil war, Islamic law looks likely to be rolled out across the sprawling archipelago. 

More than 500,000 Indonesians have now signed a petition calling for a presidential intervention against the draft laws about to pass through the Jakarta parliament. 

The proposed penal code applied to everyone in Indonesia, including foreigners, although it is unclear how it would be enforced in holiday hotspots like Bali. 

The revised penal code would jeopardise Jokowi’s plan to create “10 new Balis” to diversify Indonesia’s lucrative tourism sector away from Bali and Java.

The House of Representatives commission overseeing legal issues agreed on a final draft last week after decades of work on the legislation. 

The laws would take two years to be introduced, which conservative parliamentarians said would give the public time to adjust to the changes. 

The bill would ban sex outside marriage with the threat of a one-year prison sentence. 

Under the new laws, all same-sex relationships would become illegal in Indonesia, given that same-sex marriage is not recognised.

Criminal charges would be initiated after a complaint by a spouse, child or parent and unmarried cohabiting couples could face six months in jail.

If enacted, the bill would also criminalise buskers, beggars and sex workers.

It would make it a criminal offence to insult the president, vice president, religion, state institutions, the flag and national anthem.

Indonesia now faces a parliamentary showdown over the legislation. 

The Speaker, Bambang Soesatyo, has indicated he will support Jokowi’s proposed postponement until the next parliament. However, deputy Speaker, Fahri Hamzah, said the vote would go ahead as planned. Joko’s allies are tipped to prevail. 

“However, that could change, particularly if there are Islamist demonstrations outside the DPR [lower house] on Monday. Sentiment is fluid,” said Aaron Connelly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

“I think, if the decision is to delay it, there will be a debate about the nature of that delay, whether the bill will be carried over as it stands now to the next legislative session, or if deliberations will start from scratch on October 1. 

“Either way the new DPR will want to have its say and it may take years to put together a bill that can pass. But I still think we are likely to see a criminal code revision in a more conservative direction some day, perhaps in the next five years under Jokowi,” Connelly added. 

The new code would replace Dutch colonial-era laws in a long-overdue expression of sovereignty and religiosity, supporters in parliament said. 

“The state must protect citizens from behaviour that is contrary to the supreme precepts of God,” said Nasir Djamil of the Prosperous Justice Party.

Religious minorities and women will be singled out under the reforms. 

The proposals call for a wider interpretation of Indonesia’s blasphemy law, under which Christians and Buddhists have been prosecuted in the past.

Women would face a maximum four-year prison term for having an abortion unless there was a medical emergency or the pregnancy resulted from a rape.

The proposed penal code introduces fines for anyone promoting contraception and a six-month jail term for unauthorised discussion of the “tools of abortion”.

Human Rights Watch said the proposed legislation would “violate the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as freedom of speech and association”.

The abortion changes would “set back women and girls’ rights under international law to make their own choices”.

The reforms prompted the Australian government to update its advice for visitors to Bali, which receives around 6 million visitors a year. 

“A large number of laws may change and these will also apply to foreign residents and visitors, including tourists,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs posted online. 

An equally controversial law passed this week on an anti-corruption commission, which is widely expected to weaken parliamentary investigative powers.

The parliament, which has hosted more than 20 corruption suspects in recent years, has been criticised for passing the graft law in secrecy and in record time.

Observers say the draft penal code halves the sentence of those convicted of corruption or anyone “unlawfully enriching themselves” from four to two years in custody. 

It seems Indonesian liberals are left to cling to the president to defend human rights. Unfortunately, Jokowi lacks the influence to stop the ongoing spread of Islamic repression.


Bali’s popularity could suffer under the new laws. Picture credit: Asean Economist