28 May 2012

Shariah Advocates Must Put Into Practice Its History of Tolerance

Imam Shofwan

In August 2002, a number of Islam-based political parties demanded the Jakarta Charter be included in the Constitution, which would mean that Muslims in Indonesia would have the obligation to live according to the prescriptions of Shariah law. 

The effort was supported by a large number of — mainly hard-line — Islamic organizations, but nevertheless failed to pass through the House of Representatives, in part due to opposition from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the — also Islam-based — National Awakening Party (PKB). 

The Islamists had to change strategy. In 2004 a new law on regional autonomy gave them the opportunity they had been hoping for. They set about implementing “Shariah from below” by advocating across the archipelago local Shariah laws, which often included rules such as women being required to wear the hijab, and couples wanting to marry needing to read the Koran. 

Islamic groups have long argued that their brand of “Shariah from below” need not alarm any skeptics. The reality, however, is that attacks on religious minorities have been frequent and even deadly in a number of regions were such laws have been implemented. 

One proponent of Shariah, M.S. Kaban of the Crescent Star Party (PBB), has said that: “If Shariah is applied, the benefit is not just for the unity of Indonesia but also for a fair and cultural humanity, and for social justice for the whole of society.” Ma’ruf Amin of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) and Ismail Yusanto of the Liberation Party of Indonesia (HTI) echoed this sentiment. There was nothing to fear, they all said. 

Hidayat Nur Wahid of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has argued, in a slightly different vein, that minority rights could be protected under a social contract similar to one that existed on the Arabian peninsular in the 7th century and formed the basis of the first Islamic caliphate: the Charter of Medina. It was an agreement between the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and pagan tribes of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad first came to power. “Not only Muslims have the obligation to implement the Islamic Shariah; other groups [Jews and Christians in Medina] were given the authority to implement their religious orders,” Hidayat said. 

There have been successes at the national level for the Shariah proponents, like the 2008 Law on Pornography. And there are restrictions on the building of houses of worship issued in 2006 and a joint ministerial decree severely limiting the activities of the minority Ahmadiyah sect. But the “Shariah from below” program runs particularly smoothly. Nowadays, at least 151 local Shariah bylaws have been adopted across Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra and West Nusa Tenggara. 

In those areas, are adherents of minority religions sufficiently protected from persecution? 

According to data released by the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, in 2010 there were at least 216 violations of religious freedom in areas that had implemented Shariah bylaws. West Java, East Java, Jakarta and North Sumatra were areas of particular concern. 

Pandeglang, in Banten, began to apply Shariah bylaws in 2004. The goal was to minimize social relations among students and that effectively led to gender separation. But the defenders of Shariah in Pandeglang have not stopped at preventing boys and girls from mingling at schools; they also harass the Ahmadiyah there. 

The Feb. 6, 2011, violence against the Ahmadis in the Cikeusik subdistrict of Pandeglang was the worst such violation in recent years. Three died in an attack by a large mob. The maximum prison sentence handed down was six months. 

In Lombok, the Ahmadis suffered outright persecution. Houses were burned and access to electricity cut. All Ahmadis were expelled from Bayan, West Lombok. In 2001, persecution shifted to Pancor, in East Lombok. Local authorities gave the persecuted Ahmadis two options: leave Ahmadiyah or leave Pancor. All chose to leave Pancor. Across West Nusa Tenggara, of which Lombok is part, at least 11 Shariah bylaws are in effect: from liquor bans and compulsory Friday prayer attendance for Muslims to zakat pay cuts for civil servants. 

But Ahmadis, whom mainstream Muslims say have a deviant understanding of the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood, are not the only targets. 

Alexander Aan, an aspiring public servant in Dharmasraya district in West Sumatra, is another. On Jan. 18 this year, he was beaten and dragged to the police by a mob after questioning the existence of God in a Facebook status update. Instead of protecting him, police took him into custody and named him a suspect for defaming Islam. Is this the protection promised by pro-Shariah groups? 

Sampang district in Madura — again an area that has implemented Shariah bylaws — is home to followers of the Shiite branch of Islam. There, homes, mosques and schools of Shiites were burned in December 2011. Tajul Muluk, their leader, has been charged with blasphemy. 

West Java is among Indonesia’s most “Islamized” provinces, with at least 30 Shariah bylaws. But violence against Ahmadis and Christians is common there. 

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has a key role to play in the protection of religious freedom, which is guaranteed in the 1945 Constitution. The fact that the MUI’s Ma’ruf remains a key advisor on religious affairs is unlikely to help. In 2006, Ma’ruf helped draft the rules aimed at curbing the number of churches in this country. And in 2008, Ma’ruf supported the government’s decision to outlaw Ahmadiyah proselytizing. 

So it is about time the so-called defenders of Shariah make good on their promise and start offering protection to minorities — just like what used to be the case during the life of the Prophet Muhammad himself under the Charter of Medina. 

Imam Shofwan is the chairman of the Pantau Foundation, which is preparing a research report on Indonesian journalists’ perceptions of Islam.

This article published in Jakarta Globe, May 28, 2012