Religious leaders fear conflict over sharia edicts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am

A government ruling upholding local edicts based on the Islamic legal code has alarmed some religious leaders, who say it could lead to conflict between Indonesia's religious groups.

Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto recently announced that sharia-based laws introduced in many regencies were not against the constitution or the state's secular ideology and did not need to be repealed.

In June 2006, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered Mohammad Ma'aruf, the minister's predecessor, to look into the issue after 56 parliamentarians signed a petition urging the government to roll back sharia-based bylaws because they discriminated against non-Muslims.

Imam Addaruqutni, a senior member of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim organisation, said that bylaws were not the best way to reconcile differences.

'Some people think the majority of a community can decide what is good or bad. But this indeed can lead to a tyranny of the majority,' he said.

But Mr Imam added that the bylaws were not against the law.

'We live in a period of regional autonomy, so these bylaws are formally legal,' he said.

Indonesia started decentralising administrative powers in 1998, after the fall of former dictator Suharto. Critics of the bylaws say religion is the sole responsibility of the central government and that local authorities have never been given approval to legislate on it.

Among the critics is Novriantoni Kahar, programme manager at the Liberal Islamic Network, Indonesia's leading progressive Islamic body. Mr Kahar said that bylaws were against the freedom of religion enshrined in the constitution.

'The constitution says that every religion can be expressed in the public sphere. But some byaws oblige all women to wear a headscarf, which is a clear discrimination against non-Muslims,' he said.

In Padang, in West Sumatra, for example, although only female Muslim students are obliged to wear the headscarf, in practice non-Muslim women are also forced to do it. In Tangerang, near Jakarta, a bylaw restricts women from walking alone in the streets after 10pm on penalty of prostitution charges.

The law is applied indiscriminately, although it is meant for Muslims only.

Neles Tebay, a Catholic priest and lecturer at the Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology in Abepura, Papua, feared that the ruling would lead to a proliferation of religious-based laws that were likely to cause turmoil in the pluralistic nation.

'Hindus in Bali may soon want to formulate their own regulations, which non-Hindus living on the island would have to respect too,' he said. 'And in Papua, where the population belongs to a mix of traditions, laws based on religion could create huge tension and conflict between people.'

Today, Aceh is the only province governed by sharia, but more than 50 regencies have some sort of sharia bylaws. On the other hand, the predominantly Christian regency of Manokwari in West Papua is the only one that has established an ordinance based on the Bible. More than 85 per cent of Indonesia's 240 million people are Muslims but the country also has large Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities.

Recent surveys show that up to 70 per cent of Indonesian Muslims support the implementation of sharia law. But experts have claimed that the number would drastically fall if people were asked direct questions on whether they supported specific restrictive laws and punishments that would include public canings and hand amputations.