Just when you think Indonesia has got its house in order and is pulling ahead of its regional competition, they surprised us by doing a “Malaysia”. They shot themselves in the foot.
The country’s parliament ratified a raft of laws that criminalise what are moral and religious infractions, punishing those guilty the way their religious backers want it – as criminals.
The challenges of enforcing the law when they come into force in three years may turn them into just nice decorations in the statute books. But if the laws do start to bite and create repercussions – tourism down, non-Muslim majority territories starting to agitate, civil objections from other Muslims – it’ll be interesting to see how Indonesia reacts.
President Joko Widodo seems somewhat quiet on this matter; perhaps that’s understandable, given that he’s term-limited as president, the conservative religious forces are powerful and his focus is on his economic legacy anyway.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, known for their hard-line religious policies, are loosening up, even if such loosening ups are glacial in pace. Whilst in absolute terms these changes are small, microscopic steps, in relative terms they’re seismic.
And here we are in Malaysia. The “Political Islam” force, as shown by the “green tsunami” of wins at the recent general election, are emboldened by both their political success and the trends in countries like Indonesia.
But with Saudi Arabia, the spiritual home of Islam, heading in strange directions (Friendly with Israel! Allowing women to drive!), that must be a cause for concern for them. Would our Malaysian fans of the Saudis have to abandon it one day? We shall see.
Terengganu is going the Indonesia way by passing new enactments and creating new employment for their own moral police. With Terengganu being the spiritual capital of Political Islam in Malaysia, other states, including the old spiritual capital Kelantan, may soon follow too.
These are all big wins for the religious parties. They’re virtue-signalling at its best, costing nothing as the funds will be carved out of the budgets from existing revenues. They’ll create jobs and fiercely loyal employees and send a strong message that they’re the real protectors of Islam.
Here’s the big issue though. After decades of these religious leaders becoming increasingly powerful and after countless billions of the nation’s resources gone towards funding them, why are we facing so many “societal failures” that require such drastic actions?
A religious leader who wants to imprison someone for going against the teachings of the religion, for which the leader is supposed to have led and taught them against doing, means it’s an admission he or she (likely a he) has failed.
It’s like a school teacher bragging, not about how his students are excelling in their studies, but how harsh he penalises those who fail. Or a university boasting about how hard it punishes its drop-outs. Isn’t that an admission of failure?
If the territories they run – whether states or nations or kingdoms – aren’t the most prosperous, peaceful, educated, admired and kind and acclaimed as examples to others, can they claim success?
If all they can answer is they’ve made efforts and sacrifices but are not responsible for the results, why are they still there? And by the way, you don’t see many sacrifices made by them; in fact, many have done quite well out of it.
In the real world, you have to prove you bring value by showing how you’ve improved life for all, whereas with politics based on race and religion, you convince people to continue to support you by saying look at how bad things are becoming!
The typical argument for these people is they need to jail or flog people because they don’t want to face God in the hereafter and have to answer for the bad things that happened under their watch.
But what they do will create real misery – babies will be abandoned, young people will be punished and marked and perhaps ruined forever, and there’ll be actual broken and disrupted lives coming out of this power play.
The victims as always will be the weak and the poor, those who pose no threat and who cannot fight back. The powerful and rich ones will get away by committing their sins elsewhere (though perhaps not Indonesia).
As to how God the Merciful, the Compassionate will be happy with this, is something beyond my understanding.
A possible reason why Political Islam is so successful lately is that an increasing number of people are even more tied to it, through their education, employment and livelihoods.
Sociological research has shown how important work is for us. In one experiment in Austria, people who were unemployed and were offered jobs that pay as much as their unemployment benefits, still chose jobs rather than just doing nothing while continuing to earn the benefits.
Hitler and Mussolini came to power during times of massive unemployment and created jobs that made people feel good about themselves. This cemented their loyalty, even if, in many cases, those were purely made-up jobs.
In Malaysia, an increasing number of Malays are studying in fields that will only qualify them to be religious teachers (or increasingly, enforcers). These “job guarantee” programmes ensure their fealty to the religious leaders who put them in that position originally.
Indirectly, even those who are gainfully employed in proper jobs which are directly or even indirectly dependent on their religious political masters, such as government jobs and those in politically connected economies, show the same loyalty too.
This is a critical challenge to our future. If we cannot provide education and create jobs that will give the young people productive employment, such roles will be taken over by the religious leaders, who’ll prepare them for jobs that can only be provided by them.
Then that’s where their loyalty will reside. This will become a vicious cycle that won’t end well, for what will happen when we have more religious teachers than students, more enforcers than citizens?
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.