At the beginning of the year, a new law that would ban premarital sex was introduced in the Indonesian parliament amidst debates over revisions to the country’s criminal code. This bill would outlaw sex before marriage, and any infringement could be punishable with up to five years in prison. The ban, proposed on the advice of the top Muslim clerical body and supported by various conservative factions (both secular and religious), specifically targets members of the LGBTQ community. Since same-sex marriage has not been legalized in Indonesia, the ban implies the prohibition of sexual relations within the LGBTQ community, which has been a major goal of conservative political organizations.
Since its proposal, the ban has been a top priority of human rights advocates, who have taken issue with the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that it has propagated. Indonesia has been hailed as one of the most successful large democracies, and the ratification of such a conservative law would be seen as a setback. Zeid bin Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN human rights chief, announced in early February that he would be speaking with Joko Widodo, the Indonesian president, about the issue.
Indonesia’s increased LGBTQ persecution
Indonesia’s LGBTQ community has witnessed a sharp increase in persecution—the bill has not been the only form of LGBTQ oppression. Last spring, Indonesian police arrested 141 men in a Jakarta sauna and accused them of having a “gay sex party,” merely because they were shirtless. The arrest was justified using a law against pornography that—due to its broad wording—has been the justification for a variety of anti-LGBTQ-driven arrests.
In January, police arrested and forced twelve transgender women to shave their heads and dress like men, in an effort to prevent members of the LGBTQ community from “affecting” other Indonesian citizens. While police denied that the raid was initiated only because the persecuted were transgender (one argument given had to do with complaints of high drug usage in the area), human rights advocates have put a spotlight on this clear prejudice.
More than 300 Indonesian members of the LGBTQ community were arrested in 2017 alone, and there is a clear discrimination against LGBTQ citizens from the more conservative. Furthermore, the treatment of these men and women by the police has been brutal.
The various motives for the ban
On the one hand, many non-Muslim groups support the bill because they see it as a way of “fixing” the morals of certain citizens. For social, secular conservatives, LGBTQ rights are problematic too. Bambang Soesatyo, the speaker of the Indonesian parliament and member of the Golkar party, which does not officially identify with any religious ideology, said that same-sex relations should be criminalized because they “corrupt the morals” of the rest of Indonesia. In this way, the ban has some proponents who are not using their religious beliefs to drive reform.
On the other hand, the ban is being used as a tool by Islamist conservatives to align Indonesian law with their interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic law. Arsul Sani, one of the authors of the new criminal code and a member of the Islamist, United Development Party, confirmed that the bill would outlaw homosexual relations. For Sani, homosexual relations should be a "forbidden act." He, along with other Muslim leaders, see the ban as a more accurate reflection of the population’s views, as over 80 percent of Indonesia is Muslim.
Because of the large proportion of the population that practices Islam or identifies as socially conservative, the proposed law has gotten a lot of favor on the popular level: almost 90 percent of Indonesian citizens do not support LGBTQ rights. The cause for the debate lies with the president, who has been the main obstacle for ratification, as he is seen as “soft” on questions of morality.
However, the human rights violations are not the only problem that has arisen as a result of the proposed ban.
Implications for Muslim-majority countries
The ban has raised an important question for Muslim-majority countries, not limited to Indonesia. Ratification of the bill could be the first of many instances where Islamist political parties use their status as the religious majority to turn their respective country’s law into an echo of Sharia. The possible passage of this bill demonstrates that proponents of fundamentalist Islamism have the ability to intertwine conservative Sharia with national law.
Islamist political parties in other countries such as Algeria, Libya, and other predominantly Muslim countries have passed or debated laws regulating sexual activities, specifically targeting LGBTQ communities, in the past. The possibility of the bill’s ratification in Indonesia could be a slippery slope; approval of the ban could strengthen the precedent for other countries where Islam is in the majority. There is a possibility that this one bill could initiate sweeping Muslim reform in the East.
However, this struggle between ideology and secularism in law isn’t limited to just Indonesia or countries with a Muslim majority. In fact, it has been the cause of visible problems for countries around the world.
Important lessons for non-Muslim-majority countries
In nations where one particular ideology or religion has a clear majority, legislators in the majority often propose laws that revolve around their ideology, regardless of whether or not the laws of the country are based in secularism. Indonesia has highlighted the general tensions between ideologies and secular liberalism in law, namely the notion of a enforcing the moral code of a majority on the rest. Yet if one criticizes Indonesia for letting its Islamist parties use ideology to influence laws, then one should also think critically about other countries where religious majorities create and control legislation.
Further, one also must ask to what extent an ideological majority has the right to enforce its morals over a country that doesn’t all subscribe to that ideology. This is an important question to raise, and it is an issue that we often struggle to see at home.
Consider the debate over abortion in the United States. The “pro-life” side of the argument aligns with the fundamentalist Christian principle that life begins at conception, and many of its proponents employ their religion to argue that abortion would be immoral. About 70 percent of US citizens identify as Christian, and Christian advocacy groups are the primary supporters of the criminalization of abortion. Regardless of the side that one identifies with, it is important to recognize that proponents of the pro-life stance are attempting to use religion to justify a law that would be applicable to non-Christians, just as Indonesian premarital sex laws would affect non-Muslims.
If a conservative Muslim majority in Indonesia does not justify Sharia in its politically pluralist society, the same argument could be made that a Christian majority should not be the justification for Christianity-based laws in the United States.
In the end, the proposal of Indonesia’s premarital ban on sex has a role in the larger narrative of whether or not a majority can enforce its moral code on the rest of the population. This is a question that lawmakers and citizens both inside and outside of Indonesia must grapple with in dealing with a wide range of social issues.
Noa Levin is a Staff Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.
Noa Levin is a first-year undergraduate studying Political Science. Aside from writing for The Gate, Noa is doing research with Professor Paul Staniland and is serving as a Research Director for The Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She comes from New York (and therefore has high standards for pizza) and enjoys watching Seinfeld in her free time.