A woman is whipped in public in Banda Aceh in Indonesia's staunchly conservative Aceh province as punishment for being too close to the opposite sex. Photo: AFP

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s Islamic conservatives are back on their moral high horse, jousting with youthful Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim over his campaign against a disturbing explosion of sexual harassment on university campuses. 

In a baffling twist of logic, the opposition Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and the Muslim organization Muhammadiyah claim a regulation issued by the 37-year-old minister, which defines sexual violence as the absence of consent, is promoting sex among students.

A similar logic was applied to a campaign against HIV/AIDS in the 1990s. When the government urged people to use condoms to protect themselves, Islamic right-wingers accused it of encouraging sexual promiscuity. 

Commentators like Jakarta Post senior editor Endy Bayuni can only shake their heads in disbelief. “Who in their right mind would oppose a regulation that seeks to protect students, particularly female students, from being sexually attacked,” he wrote in a recent op-ed.

About 7.2 million students attend university in Indonesia, including 2.9 million enrolled at the country’s 122 state universities. All will be eligible voters in the 2024 presidential and general elections when nationalists and Islamists will square off again.

Since the dawn of democracy in the late 1990s, Indonesia’s religious and ethnic divide has always been brought into sharp relief during presidential elections, largely because it is normally a simple choice between two candidates.

During general elections, only 12-13% of the electorate appear to vote along religious lines. But outside of PKS and the Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP), parties are always well aware they must be sympathetic to Muslim majority sentiment.

United Development Party chairman Muhammad Romahurmuziy in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

That explains why lawmakers removed “consent” from the definition of sexual violence during recent deliberations of the separate Sexual Violence Eradication Bill, saying it amounted to approval by the state of extramarital sex.

Once maintaining an adherence to sharia law, PKS now claims to recognize Pancasila, the state’s inclusive ideology, while defining itself as Islamist and socially conservative, all in a contorted effort to attract broader nationwide support.

The party won 50 seats in the 575-seat Parliament in the 2019 legislative elections, mostly in West Java, Jakarta and West Sumatra, and seven less than its best showing in 2009. The PPP captured only 19 seats.

PKS attacks on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement get strong support from a majority of Muslim voters, with surveys demonstrating that being young in Indonesia does not always mean being progressive.

In fact, research firm Alvara’s 2019 Indonesian Muslim Report showed that young Indonesians between 14 and 29 were the dominant age group among those who identify as “puritan and ultra-conservative.”

However, the numbers reveal little about how young people deal with religious diversity in their everyday lives and how student councils might react to the issue of sexual violence being turned on its head into a conversation about promiscuity.

The Harvard-educated Makarim, the founder of the Gojek multi-service platform, father of three daughters and son of a prominent Jakarta lawyer, issued the regulation in an urgent response to increasing reports of sexual predators preying on female students.

“No learning can happen without a feeling of safety,” he said, citing a 2020 survey in which 77% of college professors said they were aware of sexual harassment on their campus. “We have to reach a higher ideal from a protection standpoint.”

Under Indonesian law, sexual violence is only considered a crime when intercourse occurs without consent. But requests for sexual favors, acts of physical assault and verbal harassment escape punishment or even censure. 

Indonesian high school students in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university. Photo: Agencies

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many complaints have been ignored or covered up by college administrators and that some students who reported harassment have been expelled or otherwise dissuaded from pursuing their legal rights.

Issued last August, but only brought into force on November 12, the ministerial decree directs all universities to form a task force to investigate complaints of sexual impropriety, rather than brushing them under the carpet to save the college from embarrassment.

Muhammadiyah’s position may have a lot to do with the fact that until Makarim came along as a surprise choice in President Joko Widodo’s second-term Cabinet, it had traditionally held the education portfolio.

That was because of its early introduction of a reformist platform, going back to the early 1900s, which mixed religion and secular education as a way of promoting the upward mobility of Muslims. In recent years, however, education has become bogged down in corruption.

“They (Muhammadiyah) are after his (Nadiem’s) job,” Bayuni wrote in his November 20 commentary. “To the other Muslim groups, however, Nadiem’s decree provided an opening in pushing their conservative agenda in the ongoing cultural wars.”

The role of Islam in the modern state has long been debated, going back to post-independence days. While a broad consensus has been reached on that issue, today’s cultural war seems overly fixated on sexuality.

Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, has its own conservative elements – including Vice President Ma’ruf Amin – but has always been more progressive on social issues as a bulwark against extremism.

Amin is a former chairman of MUI, which is pushing for provisions in a revised Criminal Code that prescribe jail terms for adultery, pre-marital and homosexual sex, and inhibits the promotion of contraception and the free flow of vital health information.

This picture released on October 7, 2017, by Indonesian police shows men detained in a raid on a gay sauna in Jakarta. Police detained 58 men in a raid on the gay sauna due to a backlash against homosexuals in the Muslim-majority country. Photo: AFP / Indonesian Police

The controversial amendment remains stalled in Parliament over those and other provisions that threaten freedom of speech.

But in the meantime, the legal system has found ways to punish gays using the Criminal Code’s existing Article 296 on facilitating fornication and Article 7 of the 2008 Pornography Law dealing with financing and felicitating pornographic acts. 

Only last year, nine young men were jailed for four to five years for engaging in homosexual activity, with the court calling their actions “inconsistent with community values.” One has since died in prison from an untreated stomach ailment.

The MUI played a significant role in shaping policy during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a period marked by the passage of the misleadingly-titled pornography law and spiraling violence against religious minorities.    

Makarim has locked horns with religious conservatives before. Last January, he signed a joint decree with the Home Affairs and Religious Affairs ministries banning government schools from requiring students to wear religious attire, particularly the head covering known as a jilbab.

The Supreme Court revoked the decree in May – but for violating 2011 legislation which lays out a framework that ensures laws and regulations are formulated in a “planned, integrated and sustainable manner” to protect people’s constitutional rights.