Indonesia’s Proposed Criminal Code Reflects The Power Of Islamic Radicals – Analysis


In a sharp turn towards authoritarianism and archaic religiosity, Indonesia’s parliament is expected to pass, within a few days, a new Criminal Code that will extend the ambit of blasphemy, ban criticism of State Institutions and criminalize cohabitation and sexual relations outside wedlock.  

Justifying the harsh new code, Deputy Justice Minister, Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej told Reuters: “We’re proud to have a criminal code that’s in line with Indonesian values.”

Observers say that this is being done to meet mounting pressure from a growing Islamic radical lobby which has been successfully propagating the view that non-Islamic mores, beliefs and practices have debilitated and corrupted governance and the social and economic order in Indonesia. 

The new trend of thought rejects modern democracy, secularism and also Pancasila, Indonesia’s five foundational principles. The five principles of Indonesian Pancasila are: one divinity; humanity; Indonesian unity; democracy; social justice for all Indonesians.  It believes in the supremacy of Islam and Muslims in Indonesia.  

The Joko Widodo (Jokowi) government appears to be determined to go through with the new Criminal Code because it has to refurbish its image to be seen as an upholder of Islamic values ahead of the 2024 elections. Its overall image had been dented by some of its recent economic policies and also its failure to tackle the pandemic satisfactorily. The tried, tested and easiest way to refurbish the image is to opt for the popular religious credo.   

Controversial Provisions

Among the controversial provisions in the proposed code are the following: While blasphemy against Islam is already a crime in Indonesia carrying imprisonment as punishment, the draft code extends the ambit of the blasphemy law to cover other religions that are officially recognized in Indonesia, namely, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. 

The upshot of this would be a plethora of blasphemy charges right across Indonesian religious spectrum.

Under the new code, non-married couples who live together will be committing a crime that carries six months’ imprisonment or a fine as punishment, although only if reported to the police by their parents, children, or a spouse. 

This provision will target members of the LGBTQ community especially. Homosexuality is already illegal in Indonesia. 

Sex outside marriage is deemed a criminal act. The proposed draft allows parents or children to report unmarried couples to the police if they suspect them of having sex. Sex before marriage and adultery will be punishable by up to a year in jail.

The danger in this is that it will curb the mixing of sexes, which is a key feature of modern society. 

The new draft code would continue to criminalize abortions, with a potential jail term of four years, although it allows abortion for medical reasons or if the pregnancy is the result of rape as long as the pregnancy is of less than 12 weeks’ gestation. 

However, the proposed criminal code can be challenged in the Constitutional Court if it is felt that it had not followed the correct procedure before it was passed, including seeking relevant and transparent public participation.

Rise of Fundamentalism

The rush to tighten the criminal law by introducing Islamic concepts of morality is attributed to rising Islamism in Indonesia, mainly inspired by Saudi Wahhabism in the past 25 years. 

In his paper on the rising tide of Islamism in Indonesia, Prof. Baladas Ghoshal former Chairman of the Southeast Asian Studies Center at Jawaharlal Nehru University, delineates the journey of Islamization in Indonesia in recent times.  

Though Indonesia is 88% Muslim, it is officially a secular country. The national ideology of Pancasila proclaims unity and equality between all recognized faiths. But Pancasila is under serious threat from Islamic fundamentalists. These elements have been making rapid and deep inroads into the Indonesians’ minds and are now mainstream. 

In 2021, the government wanted to name a road in Jakarta after the founding father of secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The renaming was part of an understanding with Turkey which had agreed to rename a street after the Indonesian leader Sukarno. But Indonesian Islamic clerics opposed the deal saying that Ataturk was an Islamic heretic. Street demonstrations thwarted the renaming project.  

In 2017, There was a street campaign against the then-Governor of Jakarta Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was an ethnic Chinese Christian. Ahok was  accused of “blasphemy” after he referred to a verse from the Qur’an. There was a widespread feeling that this was done only because Ahok was a Chinese and a Christian.

“Sharia law is spreading all the provinces of Indonesia. Citizens are enacting their own variations of Islamic laws, and applying them to non-Muslims as well,” Prof.Ghoshal points out. 

The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) is the highest Muslim clerical council. In 2005, the MUI issued a fatwa that banned liberalism, pluralism and secularism, especially secularism. The hold of moderate organizations like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has weakened since 2005, Prof. Ghoshal says. 

And MUI had State backing under Indonesia’s sixth President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Yudhoyono told the MUI’s National Congress on July 26, 2005, that he wanted to give the MUI a “central role in matters of Islamic faith”. 

The MUI issued a fatwa on secularism legitimizing  vigilante groups which enforced Islamic morality. In 2005, the MUI declared the Ahmadiyyas as “heretical”  prompting persecution of its followers. In 2006, MUI successfully demanded that the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs issue a joint decision on regulating the building of places of worship. Following this, violence against Christians increased. From then on, hardliners have been dominating the country’s political discourse, Prof. Ghoshal says.  

The COVID-19 pandemic also fueled radical Islamism in Indonesia, adds Barbara Kelemen in her paper in the series: COVID-19 in the Middle East and Asia: Impacts and Responses.

Kelemen identifies Rizieq Shihab, founder leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), as the greatest influence. Shihab was in exile in Saudi Arabia for three years. The FPI propagates the view that deviation from Islamic tenets has been the cause of all the ills of Indonesia. It has built its base by doing a lot of humanitarian work, especially during natural disasters.

During the pandemic, the Widodo government appeared to be protecting the economy rather the peoples’ lives. As a result, it was losing popular support and Shihab’s Islamic campaign was gaining ground. The government’s anti-worker and anti-environmental laws also fueled popular discontent. Members of the Indonesian Council of Young Intellectuals and Ulema, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and other Islamic groups also joined agitations against Widodo.

However, even as the government cracked down on the protesters, and jailed Shihab, it was also aware of the inherent strength of the Islamists. Widodo himself tried to improve his religious reputation during the elections in 2019. His party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has to keep its base intact to fight the February 2024 national elections. 

“While Jokowi (Joko Widodo) is barred from running for president for another term, he is probably trying to preserve his legacy while potentially preparing a path for his son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who ran and won mayoral elections in Surakarta last year,” Kelemen points out. 

Writing in Council of Foreign Relations Joshua Kurlantzick says that  Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto could be a formidable challenger in 2024 as he could reflect the popular mood, including the Islamic part. 

Subianto has been “closely linked to groups involved in demonizing and attacking religious minorities, a classic tactic of an authoritarian populist, ” Kurlantzick points out. 

In the last elections, Subianto alleged that Widodo was a Chinese Christian. Although Widodo won the election, these charges sparked riots in Jakarta, Kurlantzick recalls.

Given the compulsions of electoral politics, it is no wonder that the Widodo government is in a hurry to revise the Criminal Code on Islamic, anti-secular and authoritarian lines. 

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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