Balancing act of Indonesia’s morality law upsets activists and Islamists

Just weeks after Indonesia burnished its international standing by successfully hosting a summit of G20 leaders in Bali last month, a suicide bomber reminded the world of the ever-present threat of Islamist extremism in south-east Asia’s largest country.

The attack last week on the island of Java killed one and wounded nearly a dozen others and came just a day after Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, made long-mooted revisions to its criminal code including outlawing sex outside marriage.

Although characterised by some experts as a compromise, the new code has managed to both alarm human rights advocates and anger Islamist groups, from moderates to extremists. Notes left near the bombing described the new criminal code as a “law of infidels”, according to police.

The controversy shows the difficulty for Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo of balancing the country’s deeply conservative religious culture with its efforts to present a modern face to international investors attracted by its growing middle classes and rich natural resources. As one of the world’s biggest democracies, the country is closely watched as a counterweight to more extreme interpretations of Islam around the world.

“It was really unfortunate timing. There was a real buzz around the G20, and how an overlooked giant was finally getting the attention it deserves and had stopped punching below its weight,” said Peter Mumford, a south-east Asia analyst for Eurasia Group. “That comes crashing to a halt with some of the global headlines this week.” 

The overhaul of the criminal code, a relic of a Dutch colonial law, had been planned since the 1960s. In addition to fines and possible prison sentences for cohabitation outside marriage, the sweeping revisions approved by parliament on Tuesday also outlawed insults against the president, advocating ideologies other than Indonesia’s official state doctrine of Pancasila, and protesting without a permit.

The changes will not come into force for three years and opponents can challenge them in the constitutional court, though analysts have suggested such efforts are unlikely to succeed.

Many see the criminal code revisions as evidence of democratic backsliding under Widodo, despite his reputation as a liberal reformer. “Jokowi”, as he is known in Indonesia, has been in power since 2014 and has a supermajority in parliament.

“You could definitely say this is being seen as a walk back of democratic freedoms,” said Arya Fernandes, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia.

Others argued the revisions could have been more severe. They introduce, for instance, limits on who can report alleged breaches. For sex outside marriage, only parents, a spouse or children can bring charges. For insults against the state, solely the president, vice-president or relevant institution can determine that they have been offended.

“It is better Jokowi did this than someone else [more conservative],” said A’an Suryana, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. “Jokowi’s style is that he tries to accommodate a variety of ideas.”

Only the Prosperous Justice party — the sole overtly Islamist party in parliament — opposed the revisions in the house. Many hardline Islamists had sought an explicit ban on homosexuality.

But many believe the new code remains open to abuse. Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, warned that it could be “implicitly used against LGBTQ+ individuals” or as a “political weapon to jail opponents”.

Dédé Oetomo, the founder of Indonesia’s longest-standing LGBT+ rights group GAYa NUSANTARA, said that while the latest restrictions did not directly target gay relationships, they reflected how conditions had worsened considerably over the past decade.

“The criminal code is problematic because so many articles are anti-democratic but this has been a long-term trend,” he said, pointing to the alleged torture and death of a trans man from Peru in Bali in August.

“We can’t even do things like film showings because police stop them after an Islamist group objects,” Oetomo added.

Yet the ratification drew considerably less condemnation in the country of 276mn — especially from young people — than in 2019, when similar proposals were shelved after large-scale protests.

Indonesia was more conservative than many realised, said Eurasia’s Mumford. “People place greater influence on the role of religion now.”

A 2019 Pew Research survey found about 80 per cent of Indonesians thought homosexuality should not be accepted by society.

One reason behind the shift is the proliferation of Islamic or religious schools, which now educate more than 14mn students and come under the purview of the religious affairs ministry rather than the education ministry. Many institutions are funded by countries such as Saudi Arabia and are becoming popular with parents concerned about building “character”. 

The growth of hardline Islam in some regions could prove a divisive force as the country heads into a consequential election in 2024, when Jokowi’s term will end. Despite concerns about his record on civil liberties, the president is still highly regarded as a moderate leader.

At stake is the durability of Indonesia’s improved international standing and increased interest from foreign investors in areas such as its nickel industry. Following Jokowi’s widely-praised diplomacy at the G20, Indonesia is sending a large delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos next month to build on that momentum.

“There is no doubt that the criminal code and the headlines it generated are a risk for some business investment or for foreigners living here,” said one local executive who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“Growing extremism and the risk of a more conservative leader being voted in could put everything we have worked for at risk.”

​Letter in response to this article:

Why Indonesia’s new law jars with its syncretic Islam / From Amit A Pandya, Attorney at Law, Silver Spring, MD, US