In The News

Fighting for Indonesia’s Cultural Diversity

September 24, 2008

Dr. Robin Bush, The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Indonesia, provides more in depth analysis of Sharia regulations in Indonesia in her recent essay “Regional Sharia Regulations in Indonesia: Anomaly or Symptom?” published in August 2008 by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) as a chapter of Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia. She can be reached at

Indonesia’s rich cultural diversity is on display in full force once again this week as activists, intellectuals, dancing musicians, and women dressed in brightly colored lace dresses have taken to the streets to protest a shoddy piece of legislation that just won’t go away. The poorly-named “Anti-Pornography Bill” was first introduced by legislators in early 2006. After nearly a year of protest, heated debate, demonstrations, and conflict, the bill was sent to committee where it essentially got shelved until a couple of weeks ago when a legislator from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) decided to revive it as what he called a “Ramadan gift” for Indonesia.

But Indonesian women’s groups, cultural groups, and civil society have rejected the “gift” in no uncertain terms. Detractors of the bill reject it on the following grounds: (1) it is badly written legislation and its terms are poorly defined, (2) it duplicates existing protective legislation in the criminal code that outlaws pornography and, especially, protects children; (3) it criminalizes artistic and cultural expression that is part of Indonesia’s diverse ethnic heritage; (4) it wasn’t one of the 286 bills that the Parliament was scheduled to decide on in this session ” out of which they have only produced 124 pieces of legislation. Arguments of this nature, along with protests and demonstrations in Jakarta, Central Java, East Java, and Bali, have resulted in the indefinite postponement of the plenary session to vote on the bill.

This particular flare-up, the civil society response, and the outcome, is indicative of the trending in Indonesia related to the so-called shari’ahization of Indonesia. That is, contrary to claims of the increasing influence of a conservative and legalistic influence of Islam in Indonesia, so-called “shari’ah related” legislation has dramatically declined in number, and is no longer the political plus that it was a few years ago. The direct elections of governors, mayors, and district heads, (called pilkada) that began in 2005 have played a pivotal role in this development. As the electoral record began to trickle in, and both candidates and parties became aware that support for parties with a pro-shari’ah platform was less than 7% across the nation, a discernable shift in focus away from symbolic religiosity and towards service delivery and good governance became apparent. Both polling data and the local electoral records indicate that Indonesian voters care more about service delivery and poverty than they do religiosity ” and slowly, local governments and candidates are responding.

There are still incidents of conflict around religion ” a violent clash between the Islamic Defenders Front and Ahmadiyyah supporters in June was an example of this, as is this current re-emergence of debate around the anti-pornography bill. But increasingly, civil society is gaining confidence to speak out, and increasingly, government officials are responsive. In one of the most encouraging recent developments, the newly appointed Constitutional Court Chief Mohammad Mahfud publicly declared shari’ah legislation as unconstitutional, and called for a process of judicial review of all religion-influenced regulations. This issue is not resolved, and there will continue to be debates around the role of Islam in Indonesia ” as there should be, in such a complex and diverse democracy.

View all posts by Robin Bush


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