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Indonesia & Malaysia: Sharia’s forward march

The version of Islam found in the Muslim majority countries of Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – has long been regarded as a more moderate face of the religion.

Professor Peter Riddell, Vice Principal of the Melbourne School of Theology and Senior Fellow of Kairos Journal

Figure Image
Jakarta, capital of Indonesia| photo: iStock

Indeed, when these countries gained independence from their colonial rulers after the Second World War, political systems and social structures were shaped to more resemble Western democratic models than the more self-consciously Islamic systems of the Middle East.

Even when these new nations introduced elements of Islamic legislation in the early years of independence – such as Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law and Malaysia’s Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act of the same year – these laws seemed initially to have benign consequences in a climate of relative social harmony and interfaith acceptance.

The dragon awakes

However, Sharia-based legislation resembles the dragon Smaug from the second Hobbit movie: when awoken from a deep sleep, it unleashes social disarray.

Indonesia has long struggled with its race relations, with the 1% Chinese minority being frequent targets of marginalisation at best and violent attack at worst. In the wake of the 1998 fall of long-serving military President Soeharto, social chaos led to violent assaults on Chinese, with widespread rapes and hundreds of deaths as a result.

So when Indonesia’s current President, Joko Widodo, stepped down from his post as Governor of Jakarta in 2014 after victory in the presidential election and was replaced by his ethnic Chinese Christian Deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, there was widespread dismay among the more conservative Muslim elements of Jakarta’s population. His active campaign against corruption and education and health disadvantage won him many supporters, but Islamist groups had him firmly in their sights.

His Islamist opponents enlisted the aid of the Qur’an to justify their opposition to him. They pointed to verse 51 of chapter 5, which they saw as opposed to Christian leadership of a Muslim population: ‘O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.’

Electoral campaign

Last September Mr Purnama – or Ahok as he is more commonly known – began his electoral campaign for the Jakarta governorship elections scheduled for February 2017. He quickly fell victim to the vagaries of social media. On a visit to Indonesia’s Thousand Islands, Ahok declared that his opponents were deceiving the population by citing Qur’an verse 5:51. This has proven to be a major strategic mistake, given the context of Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law.

Hardline Islamist groups posted an edited video of Ahok’s comments on social media and whipped up a frenzied campaign against him among their supporters. One of the leaders of the hard-line Islam Defenders Front lodged a formal accusation against Ahok of blaspheming the Qur’an. A mass online petition was organised demanding that Ahok, as a non-Muslim, stop interpreting the Qur’an in his own way.

Apology on deaf ears

Mass protests against the Jakarta Governor were organised in November and December by Indonesia’s most militant Islamist groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front and the Mujahidin Council, leading initially to widespread violence and one death. Ahok’s public apology has fallen on deaf ears, with Islamist groups seizing this opportunity to rid themselves of the Jakarta Governor once and for all.

Blasphemy laws

In the event, the Indonesian authorities have been extremely wary in dealing with this case. While many at the highest levels, including President Widodo, are sympathetic to Ahok’s situation, the tactics of intimidation used by Ahok’s Islamist opponents have had an effect. His court case on the blasphemy charges commenced in December, with the Governor facing an uphill battle to clear his name. Indonesia’s blasphemy law is enjoying a new lease of life at the hands of Islamist extremist groups in post-Soeharto Indonesia.

Meanwhile, across the Straits of Malacca, the rising fervour of Islamist sentiment is also in evidence. Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, the president of the Islamic Party of Malaysia and a leading member of the political opposition, has announced that he will introduce a Bill to Malaysia’s Federal Parliament, seeking to strengthen the powers of the Islamic Courts that sit under the jurisdiction of Malaysia’s 1965 Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act.

The proposed new powers relate specifically to the crimes of zina (premarital sex), qazaf (false accusation of zina), and consumption of alcohol. If the Bill is passed, punishments will be dramatically increased to 30 years’ prison, a US$25,000 fine and 100 lashes of the cane.

The sleeping dragon of Sharia has awoken and is on the rampage.