To anyone who has been watching Indonesia in recent years, the passing of a conservative new criminal code — one that bans extramarital sex, makes it easier to punish LGBTQ people and harder to criticize the government — will not come as a shock.
Less tolerant forms of Islam have been seeping into the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Destructive blasphemy charges have toppled political hopefuls and Islamic bylaws are common. To secure his re-election in 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo chose senior cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.
That does not make the bill — and the circumstances that allowed it to be rushed through, without significant political resistance — any less troubling.
Illustration: Mountain People
Indonesia is attempting to court foreign investment, to improve its workforce and education system, and just bolstered its international standing with its presidency of the G20. Jakarta cannot afford backsliding. It is also gearing up for a presidential election in 2024, meaning discourse is not likely to move in a more liberal direction.
Nor is the regional context reassuring. In neighboring Malaysia, a general election last month that saw millions of young voters casting ballots for the first time resulted in hard-line Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) emerging with the largest number of seats of any individual party, surfing a wave of discontent with existing alternatives. PAS has not joined the governing coalition, but its concerns will be heard.
Granted, the revamp of Indonesia’s old code, still a relic of the Dutch colonial era, has been in the works for decades. This is a Muslim-majority nation and far more conservative than is often assumed — a 2019 Pew survey found that 80 percent of Indonesians think homosexuality should not be accepted by society. For many Indonesians, even non-Muslim ones, the code may well reflect their beliefs, if not necessarily what they would actively campaign for.
It is also true that the bill could have been worse. It did, for example, limit the categories of people who can file police complaints over morality crimes. Hard-line groups, those campaigning for alcohol bans and the imposition of Islamic penal law, wanted more. And, yes, legislation is one thing and practice is quite another.
Unfortunately, the risks to minorities and political opponents suggest that is no comfort at all.
First and foremost, concern will be for the LGBTQ community, already dealing with one of the harshest environments in Asia, even if same-sex relationships were not previously criminalized at the national level. Raids, shaming and harassment have long been common. The new code stipulates reports have to be made by a parent, spouse or child — meaning foreigners might find they can get around the law, and in theory limiting application — but it opens the door to morality policing on a much wider scale.
In fact, almost anyone is at risk of excessively zealous application, given how open to interpretation certain clauses are when it comes to anything that does not align with conservative views, including, say, black magic, in a nation where such beliefs have long coexisted with Islam.
It will hurt women by making sexual education and information on contraception harder, and that is before considering the provisions that ban insulting the president and state institutions, gagging government critics, already frequently targeted with other provisions. Defamation laws, similar to lese majeste, are all too useful to restrict freedom of expression.
The question, then, is where we go from here. It might help to consider the three factors that have already supported the current conservative turn — none of them fading.
First, in both Malaysia and Indonesia, politicians have found that Islamic identity politics, and piety, pays. In Malaysia, this dates back to former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 1980s, increasing under former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who courted PAS and its conservative voters to shore up his power as scandals hit.
Islamic organizations, after all, can mobilize voters and crowds, as they did against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, a Christian. He was jailed for blasphemy in 2017.
His Muslim opponent and eventual successor, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, plans to run for president in 2024 and should get the support of traditionalists, though he will inevitably seek the backing of more moderate Islamic groups, too.
It has proven pragmatic to occasionally cede to conservative forces, especially for a president like Widodo, focused on his economic and development goals. The Indonesian leader, as anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen at Utrecht University pointed out to me, has successfully repressed the activism that brought down Ahok by banning some movements and co-opting others.
“The current legislation seems to be at variance with government policy, but is the expression of political realities,” Van Bruinessen said.
There are bargains to be made in a large coalition of discordant parties.
There is also the education question. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, Islamic groups have been able to take advantage of creaking public systems, allowing them to set up religious boarding schools and other institutions that offer an affordable alternative to the private sector, but can encourage a drift to traditionalism and do not necessarily churn out the workers of the future. Neither nation is doing enough to solve that education deficit.
Perhaps the most concerning, though, is the way democratic vulnerabilities in both nations have aided the conservative turn and are likely to encourage it.
In Indonesia, that applies as much to the content of the code, with its provisions making it easier to muzzle critics, as to the way it has been passed. In 2019, an earlier effort to revise the criminal code met with massive demonstrations, there was widespread anger over the reluctance to make the draft public and concerns over changes seen as a winding back of democracy.
This year, public consultation and discussion has again been curtailed, but the government has not seen itself hampered by a similar surge of anger, though the bill will fully come into effect three years after it is signed, leaving ample time for protest and court challenges.
In part, said Alexander Arifianto at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, it is about fatigue — and the fact people are not yet feeling targeted enough by the new code. The problem is that laws that interfere with personal freedoms are hard to predict, especially when they rely on private actors to enforce them, Arifianto said.
You are not on the wrong side of morality laws — until you are.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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