Mon, 14 Aug 2000

The 'syariah' debate

Should a modern Muslim beat his wife, even if his holy book allows him to do so? Obviously, the answer to this question is an unambiguous 'no'. In Turkey, however, the question, carried in a recent book published by a state-run religious foundation, Diyanet Vakfi, whether a man should strike his wife prompted the rekindling of an old debate.

Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, the head of Turkey's government directorate of religious affairs, said in an article contained in the August issue of a magazine published by his directorate that misconceptions in the West associating Islam with backwardness, violence and the isolation of women from public life actually stem from wrongly interpreted verses of the Koran.

The issue has sparked a public debate over what to do with Koranic verses that are in conflict with modern values and Turkey's secular legal system.

"These days, a philosophy that is not based on human rights has almost no chance of approval and success on a universal level," Yilmaz argues.

At present, when Indonesian legislators in the country's highest law making body, the People's Consultative Assembly, are debating whether or not to adopt -- or rather readopt -- syariah Koranic law in their Constitution, this kind of public controversy illustrates one of the difficulties that are in store for the nation should it decide to adopt syariah.

The issue of whether or not to restore the text known as the "Jakarta Charter" in the Constitution appeared, until just a few days ago, to have been resolved once and for all on August 18, 1945, the day the document was made public. Now, legislators of certain minority Islamic parties have decided to demand the readoption of the Jakarta Charter.

The text of the charter contained just seven words, dengan kewajiban menjalankan syariah Islam bagi pemeluknya (with the duty to practice syariah by the faith's adherents), coming at the end of a clause affirming believe in one God as one of the country's foundations. The words were scrapped from the draft at the insistence of representatives of non-Moslem provinces, just before the Constitution was made public.

It appears certain, though, that the demand will be rejected by the Assembly, given that some minority factions as well as the two biggest factions in the Assembly, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar who together control more than half of votes, have already expressed their opposition.

It is worth noting that the proposal to make the syariah obligatory for all Indonesian Muslims is rejected even by some of the country's most prominent Muslim leaders, including Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of Indonesia's 40-million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Syafi'ie Ma'arief of the Muhammadiyah organization, the country's second-largest Muslim organization with more than 30 million members, and the noted Muslim intellectual, Nurcholish Madjid.

The fact is that while the overwhelming majority of Indonesia's population is Muslim, Indonesian Muslims cover a wide spectrum of groups, ranging from the so-called abangan, or nominal Muslims who in all probability make up the majority of Indonesia's Muslim population, to various denominations of santri, or practicing Muslims. Certainly not all of those who are officially regarded as Muslims would feel comfortable being obliged to practice syariah.

It seems, though, at least for now, that there is little reason to fear such a scenario becoming reality. By far most Indonesians -- including Muslims who are aware of the diversity of their nation -- would prefer Indonesia to remain as it is: a country that recognizes the One Almighty God as one of its foundations but that leaves it up to the people to live and worship according to their own faiths and persuasions.