Indonesia's soon-to-be-inaugurated Vice President Ma'ruf Amin in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Last month, newly elected Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin sent a letter to President Joko Widodo urging him to support the passage of a revised Criminal Code, whose controversial provisions have sparked a national outcry and raised concerns it will change the face of Indonesian society.

Amin, as chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), and the council’s secretary-general, Anwar Abbas, dispatched the request on August 12 as the outgoing House of Representatives sought to rush through a raft of bills before it rises for the last time on September 30.

“God willing, the Criminal Code will be an historical landmark recorded in golden ink as one of the biggest achievements of President Joko Widodo, something previous governments failed to do,” said the letter, which circulated on social media but has so far received little attention.

Increasingly violent student protests in Jakarta and cities across the main islands of Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi finally forced a reluctant Widodo to delay the legislation, along with other bills on mining, agrarian reform and prisons, until the new parliament takes office next month.

But it won’t end there. In an effort to end the protests before his inauguration on October 20, Widodo is considering the issuance of a presidential regulation in lieu of law (PERPPU) cancelling the equally unpopular Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) Law, which passed parliament last week.

University students protest outside the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 24, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

That, however, would still require the new House to accept or revoke the PERPPU, which could prove to be a major test for the president when many of the parties in his ruling coalition – including his own Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) –were fully behind the effort to weaken the KPK, the country’s most popular institution.

Among other provisions, the Criminal Code imposes renewed restraints on free speech, prescribes jail terms and fines for adultery, premarital and homosexual sex, and inhibits the promotion of contraception and the free flow of vital health information.

Amin has said he will resign as MUI chairman when he and Widodo are sworn in on October 20, but Azyumardi Azra, a prominent Muslim scholar and former rector of the State Islamic University, has his doubts the 76-year-old cleric will give up the position.

“I don’t know why he continues to retain the position. He should have resigned by this time, if only in terms of (preserving) his health,” he says, noting that there is no special session on the agenda of MUI’s next national meeting in November to affect a leadership change.

Widodo caused a major stir by appointing Amin, then supreme leader of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, as his running mate in April’s presidential election, thereby assuring himself of the crucial support of its 45 million followers in a tight race.

Habitually dressed in sandals and sarong, his career shaped as much by his prowess as an Islamic politician as his expertise in Islamic law, Amin will be very different from incumbent Jusuf Kalla, ill-equipped to tackle economic and real-world issues in a modern state.

Indonesian cleric Ma'ruf Amin heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest mass Muslim organization. Photo: Youtube
Newly elected Vice President Ma’ruf Amin in a screen grab photo. Photo: Youtube

After his nomination, Amin sought to play down his previous role as an adviser to president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, where he was responsible for pushing a series of hard-line edicts and policies that led to an alarming slide in Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance between 2008 and 2014.

Amin had also served as a key witness in the 2018 blasphemy trial of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, having founded the so-called 212 Movement whose mass demonstrations ensured the Christian-Chinese leader’s defeat in the 2017 gubernatorial election.

He has since said he regrets his expert testimony, delivered as MUI’s chairman, helped to send the popular governor to two years’ jail on a blasphemy charge most legal experts saw as tenuous, explaining at the time that the law was simply following its course.

One moderate Muslim leader points out that outgoing Vice-President Jusuf Kalla has remained as chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council and the Indonesian Red Cross.
But the MUI has a far more influential place in Indonesian society than either of those two organizations.

Indeed, Yudhoyono gave MUI a quasi-official position in determining his government’s policy on religion. “We open our hearts and minds to receiving the thoughts, recommendations and fatwa from the MUI and ulema at any time,” Yudhonyono said in a July 2005 speech.

“We want to place MUI in a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith, so that it becomes clear what the difference is between areas that are the preserve of the state and areas where the government or state should heed the fatwa from the MUI and ulema,” he said.

It appears MUI has retained much of that influence. When Parliament’s legal commission was deliberating the Criminal Code last year, House Speaker Bambang Soesetyo made it patently clear how much attention was being paid to the MUI delegation’s input.

An Indonesian Sharia police whips a man during a public caning ceremony outside a mosque in Banda Aceh, September 18, 2015. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

In his letter to Widodo last month, Amin underscored that by saying he was anxious to see the code passed during the current parliamentary term because the council had formed three different teams to work “intensely” on the proposed revisions.

Azyumardi says the public reaction to the finished bill shows just how little the commission took notice of civil society in considering some of its more contentious clauses that impact on personal freedoms, many of which contravene international law.

“Hopefully, the next Parliament will involve civil society more in its deliberations,” says Azyumardi, who believes adultery became a particular issue because Amin had been influenced by the Islamic Religious Court, which only deals with marital and inheritance issues.

Apart from the Criminal Code, Amin also wants the same swift passage of a draft bill regulating religious boarding schools and religious education, which has drawn criticism from church leaders. But at the same time, he said there was no need to rush separate legislation that addresses rampant sexual violence.

The opposition Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) has objected to the definition and scope of rape in the draft, saying it has a “liberal perspective” that is not in line with Pancasila, the state ideology, religious values and Eastern culture.

PKS parliamentary chairman Jazuli Juwaini, a lawmaker from the conservative western Java province of Banten, made it clear last February that the party was determined to have the bill dropped. “It appears to promote free sex and deviant sexual behavior,” he claimed.

That is not how most women see it, angry that the country’s tone-deaf parliamentarians see a populist morality movement, focusing on adultery, premarital sex and drinking alcohol, as more important issues than sexual violence against mothers and children.

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