MEDAN: A new law enacted in West Sumatra Province in Indonesia is worrying human rights activists and local minority groups alike as fears grow that it could lead to more Islamic laws being signed into force across the country that might restrict the rights of minorities.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, yet its constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the secularity of the government. In addition, many Indonesians still follow adat, or customary law, in each community.
But the new law passed by the country’s House of Representatives states that the customs of the Minangkabau, the largest ethnic group in West Sumatra Province, are based on the philosophical values of “Shariah law, and Shariah is based on the Quran”.
The new law can be seen as meaning all residents in the province could find themselves under increasingly strict local laws rooted in Shariah.
“The new legislation was requested by senior West Sumatran politicians and community leaders with a justification that the prevailing legal customs of ethnic Minangkabau have traditionally utilised the Quran as one of the legal foundations of customary law,” Alexander Raymond Arifianto, a research fellow at the Indonesia Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Nikkei Asia.
“This amendment is significant because it formalises the enactment of Islamic law throughout West Sumatra Province. The new legislation also justifies the provincial government to issue provincewide Shariah-conforming rules and regulations, which could potentially discriminate against women and non-Muslim citizens.”
While Shariah-inspired law is used across Indonesia in civil matters that pertain to Islamic customs, such as marriage and inheritance, as well as in some local laws, ultraconservative Aceh Province is the only part of Indonesia with the authority to enact widespread Islamic law because it was granted special autonomy status by the Indonesian government as part of a peace agreement with the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005.
According to Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, the new legislation in West Sumatra has been a long time in the making.
“West Sumatra Province has introduced multiple Shariah-inspired regulations over the last two decades,” he told Nikkei.
“In 2002, for instance, West Sumatra introduced the first mandatory hijab (headscarf) regulation in Indonesia, two years before Aceh, that sanctioned all state schoolgirls and female civil servants to wear the hijab.
“These discriminatory and abusive dress codes have a harmful impact on women and girls, making many girls lose their rights to education and many women to be under pressure to wear the hijab or lose their job,” he said.
“Many West Sumatran politicians were aware that they did not have the legal foundation to introduce these discriminatory regulations, including anti-LGBT rules and Shariah-inspired regulations to discriminate against non-Muslims and non-Sunnis.
They had been campaigning to have an autonomous Minangkabau Province, like Aceh, which was legally allowed to introduce Shariah. They failed to do that, as West Sumatra does not have a special historical background like Aceh.”
In 2021, a school in the provincial capital, Padang, caused controversy when it passed a requirement for female students of all faiths to wear the hijab.
In 2016, parts of the province allegedly banned Christians from openly celebrating Christmas, according to complaints from local residents, and in 2018, the city of Pariaman passed a “public nuisance” law that targeted the LGBT community.
Following the passage of the new law in June, politicians were quick to tell the media that it would not contravene Indonesia’s 1945 constitution, which “guarantees religious freedom for all”, and Indonesia’s state philosophy, known as Pancasila, which is based on pluralism.
West Sumatra Province has a population of over five million people, and more than 130,000 belong to minority groups, such as the predominantly Christian residents of the Mentawai Islands.
There are also sizable Batak, Javanese and Sundanese populations, as well as Buddhist residents.
“It is quite possible that there is going to be a legal challenge to this controversial law. Ethnic Mentawai are freaking out with this new law, as well as other religious minorities in West Sumatra,” Harsono said.
According to Heronimus Eko Pintalius Zebua, the chairman of the West Sumatra Mentawai Student Forum, the new law, which takes a zero-sum approach to customary law in the province, does not take into account Mentawai culture.
“We should know that in West Sumatra there are two cultures,” he told Nikkei, “namely the Minangkabau culture and the Mentawai culture. The Mentawai community has a different socio-culture from the Minangkabau community.”
As a result, he said, it is not appropriate for the new law to apply to everyone in the province, adding that the Mentawai Student Forum West Sumatra is asking for additional articles to explicitly acknowledge and accommodate the existence of the Mentawai people and their culture so that they are not bound by Shariah or Islamic local laws and customs.
“The Mentawai people are part of West Sumatra but are not Minangkabau,” he said.
There are also fears that the new legislation has set a precedent that other more conservative provinces across the country may follow.
“Provinces like South Sulawesi, West Java, South Kalimantan and others dominated by conservative Islamic clerics and politicians could follow suit to request the House of Representatives to enact such a legislation for their provinces. Currently, there are over 1,000 local Shariah regulations throughout Indonesia,” Arifianto said.
“There is no doubt that provincial-level Shariah regulations would build upon these local regulations, contributing to the further Islamisation of Indonesian legal foundation and risking further discriminatory provincial and local-level regulations against Indonesian religious minorities and women from all faith traditions.”