By Anjali Mitter Duva
Indonesia has the largest and most diverse Muslim population in the world. While 90 percent of its 220 million population practice the faith, other groups maintain very different social and cultural identifications. Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs dominated the region before the 14th century, when traders and mystics (or Sufis) from South Asia and the Middle East introduced Islam to the archipelago. Today, the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims follow an amalgam of beliefs. Even the minority groups that practice orthodox Islam take both traditionalist and modernist approaches.
Ever since Indonesia gained independence in 1945, it has been divided over the legal status of Islam. After independence, some of the more orthodox Muslim groups called for an Islamic state and the observance of Sharia law. But the moderates worked out a compromise and it was agreed that the question of Sharia would be revisited in the future. In the meantime, Indonesia would be regarded not so much as a secular state, but a religious one, wherein the country’s various religions -- Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity -- would coexist.
“Sharia” means “path,” and refers to the body of God’s commands, which, when followed, lead to salvation. The law is derived from the Koran and the Hadiths, or teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, which have been interpreted by Islamic scholars over centuries. Sharia offers a code for living that governs most aspects of daily life: personal acts of worship, commercial dealings, marriage and divorce and penal laws. How Sharia law is applied in society has raised questions on the issue of morality versus legality. Advocates for the law believe it creates a more just society in which there is less crime because of the harsh punishments the law imposes, including flogging, stoning and amputation. Although adoption of Sharia law across the Muslim world varies, all five of its major schools of thought decree that men and women dress modestly and ban adultery and the consumption of alcohol.
Since the 1940s, most of Indonesia’s Muslims have rejected the notion of an Islamic state. But hardliners intent on implementing Sharia law have continued to push for such a state through what they call a holy war, attacks (such as those in Bali and Jakarta between 2002 to 2005) and the more recent peaceful political efforts.
In 1990, realizing the need for Muslim support, President Suharto, who had previously banned Muslim political parties, began to allow Muslim intellectuals, such as B. J. Habibie, to hold important posts in the central government. When Habibie became president in 1998, the government’s attitude toward Islamists changed dramatically. Under Habibie, provinces were encouraged to enact Sharia law. More than 30 legislative bodies, primarily on the islands of Sumatra (including Aceh), Sulawesi and Java, adopted Sharia law under Habibie’s rule.
In urban areas, such as Banda Aceh and Tanggerang, where the most radical political changes have taken place, women have been arrested for being out alone at night or failing to wear a headscarf as a government employee; in addition, those who consume alcohol face public whipping. A majority of Indonesians and many foreign governments, including the United States, fear that the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, cannot reign in hardline Muslim conservatives and that individual freedoms and the country’s moderate traditions hang in the balance.
Sources: Asian Law Center, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations, The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, The New York Times.
Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer, editor and content developer. With a Master’s in City Planning from MIT, she specializes in urban development, international affairs, history, geography, public health and arts and culture.