JAKARTA, Indonesia - Women are jailed for being on the street alone after dark in parts of Indonesia, long held up as a beacon of moderate Islam. Gamblers are caned as punishment, Christian schoolchildren are forced to wear headscarves and a proposed law would sentence thieves to amputation of the hands.
Though most people in the world’s most populous Muslim nation practice a tolerant form of the faith, a small but determined group of conservatives are chipping away at the sprawling archipelago’s secular traditions and trying to reshape it in the image of orthodox Middle Eastern countries.
And they are slowly gaining ground, in part, critics say, because President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, liberal Muslim leaders and society at large have stayed away from loud, public debate on the issue.
Aiding the conservatives is the high level of autonomy given to local and regional legislatures since ex-dictator Suharto’s 32-year leadership came to an end in 1998 amid massive, pro-democracy street protests.
More than 50 legislative bodies _ from westernmost Sumatra island to Sulawesi further east _ have passed laws inspired by the Islamic legal code, or Sharia, to regulate moral behavior.
On a federal level, hard-liners are pushing an anti-pornography bill that calls for prison terms of up to five years for kissing in public and one year for exposure of a woman’s “sensual” body parts, though few expect it to pass in its present form.
“I call it creeping Sharia-ization of our society,” said Syafi’i Anwar, executive director of the Jakarta-based International Center for Islam and Pluralism, noting that because Muslim groups have done poorly in national elections they are pushing their will through the “back door.”
Many people remain silent for fear of being labeled unIslamic, analysts note. Others share concerns of conservatives about moral decay _ pointing to girls in miniskirts, Playboy magazines hawked on street corners _ albeit in a toned down Indonesian version _ and offerings of alcohol on restaurant menus.
And the remainder do not care about the Islamic legislation or fail to see any danger from it.
“Many people think it’s not worthwhile to go against this small, determined group,” said Martin van Bruinessen, a longtime Indonesia watcher and the head of the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World.
“They feel they are not directly affected by things taking place. When they discover they are, it may be too late.”
Lilis Lindawati, a 36-year-old waitress, is among those who found out the hard way.
She was waiting for a bus at 8 p.m. in Tangerang, a city on the outskirts of the Indonesian capital, when public order officers hauled her in because she was alone on the street after dark, was not wearing a headscarf and had a tube of lipstick in her purse.
The judge, who heard Lindawati’s case at a public trial in the town square last March, said that was enough to prove the mother of two was a prostitute. He sentenced her to three nights in prison.
“Everything changed after that,” said Lindawati, who insists she is not a sex worker. “My neighbors started avoiding me. My husband’s friends stopped coming around. When word got out that I intended to file a suit against the city, I started getting threats.
“Eventually I quit my job and we moved here,” she said, forcing back tears as she pointed to her family’s sparse, one-room house outside the city.
Indonesia has more Muslims than any other in the world, with 90 percent of its 220 million population practicing the faith.
But Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs and traditions that held sway long before traders brought Islam to the archipelagic nation in the 14th century have dramatically shaped the country’s outlook and some islands have large Christian populations.
Irfan Awwas, chairman of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, worries that the country is suffering from moral decay, and says Islamic-based laws, or anti-sinful behavior regulations as he calls them, are necessary.
“Look around you, existing criminal codes have done nothing,” says Awwas, whose group is pushing to impose Sharia nationwide, a notion rejected since Indonesian independence in 1945.
He insists the Islamic laws do not violate the constitution or Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila, which promotes multiculturalism and religious harmony.
Some religious leaders say rising anger over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, seen by many here as attacks on their faith, have added to the legitimacy of hard-liners.
Radicals also are seizing on growing Islamization of society since Suharto’s downfall. The former strongman saw the religion as a threat to his rule and marginalized Muslim groups, treating them, as former prime minister M. Natsir famously said, “like a cat with ringworm.”
“I’m glad that today we are allowed to fulfill our Muslims obligations,” said 28-year-old bank employee Dewi Latifah, who started wearing a headscarf after Suharto’s reign ended.
But critics say Yudhoyono, who became the country’s first directly elected leader in 2004, should be doing more to counter the forces polarizing society. He has said little when Muslim mobs attacked sects deemed heretical to Islam or forced Christian churches to close, claiming they did not have permits.
Yudhoyono is afraid of being smeared as anti-Islamic by political opponents and “believes it is better to say nothing,” said former President Abdurrahman Wahid, known for his commitment to pluralistic, democratic values.”
Wahid _ and many legal experts _ say the Islamic-based laws are clearly illegal under Indonesia’s constitution.
“Our constitution stresses that government involvement in morality and religious sides of community life should be ceased,” he said, adding that it also says “men and women should enjoy the same freedoms.”
In Aceh, the province on Sumatra island that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, a newly proposed law calls for thieves to have their hands amputated, though few believe the measure will get through. And in the last year, gamblers and people caught consuming alcohol have been publicly flogged and women leaving their homes without covering their hair have been pulled over and fined.
In the nearby city of Padang all schoolchildren are obliged to wear Islamic dress _ even Christians.
Government security officers paroling the beach shined flashlights into the windows of parked cars earlier this month, lecturing one unmarried man who was trying to break up with his teary-eyed girlfriend in the front seat.
“This has all gone too far,” said Yongky, a Chinese man drinking coffee in the town’s bustling Chinatown, even though he has never been targeted. “It’s just Christians, but many Muslims also feel uneasy.”