If you study a map of the world, it is hard to find many nations that are much more complex -- at the level of geography, culture, religion and history -- as Indonesia.
For starters, the nation's population of 250 million-plus is spread, as any travel agent will tell you, over an archipelago of 17,508 islands -- with five major islands and 6,000 others containing populated areas.
Indonesia is also the world's largest Muslim-majority (86 percent of the population) nation and it's approach to Islam is strikingly different, in many ways, than the Arab cultures of the Middle East. In many ways, Islam in Indonesia and Asia functions as a third major form of this complex faith, along with the better-known Sunni and Shia streams.
This brings us to a recent Washington Post story, offering a highly Western take on what some would consider a "culture war" conflict in Indonesia. The rather bland headline: "Indonesia’s top court weighs ban on sex outside marriage." The story, for the most part, is dominated by rather vague references to conflicts between "progressives" and "conservatives."
Also, I read this story more carefully after receiving a note from my colleague Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin noting, "Tremendous hole in this piece: what about non-Muslim Indonesians? There are many Hindus in Java, Christian Chinese, Sikhs and others living there."
Yes, let's watch for that, too. Here's the overture:
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia’s highest court is deliberating whether sex outside marriage should be made illegal in the world’s third-largest democracy, in the latest push by conservative Islamist organizations to restructure the country’s relatively secular legal code.
If the court revises the law to forbid casual sex, gay sexual relations would become illegal for the first time in Indonesian history, and straight unmarried couples could face prosecution.
The Family Love Alliance, a conservative Islamist advocacy organization, petitioned the Constitutional Court to broaden existing Indonesian law, which makes adultery illegal but does not ban sexual relations between unmarried people.
Question No. 1: What does the often-abused term "Islamist" mean in the context of Indonesia? Is the Post team actually arguing that mainstream or even conservative forms of Islam have suddenly forsaken their land's approach to Islam and turned to "Islamist" tactics and doctrines seen in the Islamic State or Saudi Arabia?
The bottom line: It is one thing to say that Muslim conservatives are seeking changes in Indonesian laws, perhaps in keeping with forms of Sharia law seen in other majority-Muslim nations. It's something else to say that these public figures are now truly "Islamists," a term usually used to describe efforts at governing through the use of radicalized, politicized versions of the faith. It is interesting to note that the term "Sharia" does not appear in this Post story.
The story, as you would expect, appears to contain quite a bit of material drawn -- on background -- from interviews with human-rights activists who oppose attempts to change the nation's laws. The strongest "conservative" quotes are taken from court testimony. Such as:
Activists fear that Indonesia’s highly conservative court will be unable to resist the opportunity to strike a blow for traditional morality. In an early court hearing, one conservative judge, Patrialis Akbar, appeared to affirm arguments made by conservative plaintiffs, saying, “Our freedom is limited by moral values as well as religious values. . . . We’re not a secular country -- this country acknowledges religion.”
“Can LGBT refrain from . . . free sex with constantly changing partners? They cannot. LGBT represents sex, sex, sex,” Dewi Inong Irana, a doctor, told the court, citing her experience with gay and transgender patients. Dewi also warned the court about the dangers of the gay hookup app Grindr, which has since been banned by the government. “We have to protect this nation, ladies and gentlemen. Grindr is already here,” she said.
Once again we see a familiar structure in contemporary journalism -- the story is framed with material drawn from interviews with progressive activists. Quotes offering opposing views are taken from information in public life or online publications, rather than from actual interviews. The result, in this case, is compassionate activist voices squaring off with legalistic people in official roles.
As you would expect, in a story about Indonesia, there are all kinds of complications that affect the debate.
Once again, there is Rifkin's valid question about the views of leaders in other major religious groups. What do Hindu and Christian leaders say about this legal trend, or are they afraid to speak? That would important to note.
I also wondered if trends in one part of Indonesia are now spreading into the national culture. Once again, remember all of those islands, all of those communities, some with their own unique history of law and faith. For example:
Another worry about the court case, according to Santi Kusumaningrum, co-director of the Center on Child Protection at the University of Indonesia, is that only about half of Indonesian couples have been legally married, meaning that millions of couples with informal and ceremonial marriages will no longer be legally able to have sex.
“This law, when enforced, will immediately exclude the poor, the marginalized, people who live in remote places in the margins of public service,” she said.
While a ban on extramarital sex would be difficult, if not impossible, for the government to enforce, progressive activists fear it would empower local vigilantes to expose and extort cohabiting unmarried couples. This is already a fairly common practice in parts of Indonesia, although it lacks legal basis in much of the country.
Again let me stress that I know this is a very complex story about trends in a very complex land. Thus, it is understandable that the Post team framed this as another "Islamists" vs. Western values story. It would have been hard to have included all of the different points of view that you know must exist in the context of such a complex culture.
Still, I wanted to hear some other voices -- from people in other faith groups and also actual voices of ordinary Muslims in Indonesia, as opposed to politicians and activists. Maybe the Post made this story a bit too simple.