As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for July's presidential election, Indonesian rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of Shari'ah-inspired laws they say discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia's policy of the Pancasila, or "unity in diversity."

With President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with Islamic parties for the election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province governed by Shari'ah, more than 50 regencies in 16 of Indonesia's 32 provinces have passed some 600 Shari'ah-influenced laws following the Regional Autonomy Law of 2000.

The laws vary widely. Legislation in Padang requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found "loitering" on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested for prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Qur'an literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism, and gambling.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of Indonesia's constitution, yet some regencies have adopted Shari'ah in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, said Syafi'i Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism. Citing the Padang headscarf example, he said, "This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes."

While Indonesia's largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them.

In February 2008, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the national government saw no need to nullify some 600 Shari'ah-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto's decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Mohammad Mahfud, newly reelected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting Shari'ah-inspired laws that he said promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

"[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity," he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post. "Then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem."

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 Shari'ah-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

"Advocates of Shari'ah-based laws will stress the divine origin of Shari'ah and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits," he told The Jakarta Post. "They maintain that Shari'ah is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy."

A national, Shari'ah-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation. The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

"This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender's Front (FPI)," Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), told reporters. FPI is widely regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

"Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community," she added. "Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values."

Shari'ah-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year, as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe President Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country's Islamic parties in order to win reelection against the Golkar Party, allied with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDIP. Such a coalition would likely come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance observed, "The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him."



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