The largest Muslim-majority country in the world is Indonesia, a country in which 87.2% of the population is Muslim and contains 12.7% of the world’s Islamic population. When people think about tackling religious fundamentalism, particularly in an Islamic context, very few people think about Indonesia but there are parts of civil society that explicitly endorse incredibly extreme views. Not only is the existence of very conservative religious views a dangerous thing in a country that officially supports religious pluralism, but the dominance of one set of religious views is having real-life consequences that can be only be described as disgusting.
At a basic level humans want to feel loved and to have meaningful relationships. For many this manifests as a desire for sexual relationships, and some romance doesn’t come into the equation at all. Demographically speaking most people fall into the first category and the overwhelming majority of these people are in heterosexual relationships. However this has become more difficult in Indonesia because of arbitrary religious rules that have been imposed upon people. The result of these rules are barbaric punishments for normal behaviour.
In the Indonesian province of Aceh the country’s constitutional understanding of religious pluralism is essentially ignored. Since 2004 Aceh has had a special position in the Indonesian state which has granted the region more autonomy than other areas of the country. As a consequence of this autonomy the Indonesian government has allowed Aceh to introduce Sharia law, and since 2004 the people of Aceh have lived under this barbaric judicial system.
So why am I bringing this up now? A story in The Independent caught my eye because of how ludicrous the situation was. 13 separate women were caned by religious authorities for breaking the law. What was their crime? They “were standing too close to their boyfriends”. We’re not talking about people having sex in public. We’re not talking about people holding hands. We’re talking about a heterosexual couple being proximate.
The reason this angers me is that this kind of thing isn’t an issue. Normally when I cover these kinds of stories it’s something to do with a same-sex couple in an oppressive country, or it’s that the existing patriarchal structures of a society are limiting who women can marry. This isn’t the case here. These women were punished for being close to men they want to get to know. How can you get to know someone if you are forbidden by law to be near them outside of wedlock? The answer is that you can’t, and a strict Islamic society would make people get married before they become acquainted with who the hell they’re getting married to.
Religious fundamentalism conjures up different images depending on the context about which we are talking. Christian fundamentalism, for example, may look something like the KKK or viciously homophobic priests from somewhere like Uganda. Islamic fundamentalism is dominated by one image: terrorism, groups headquartered in the Middle East. This is because we are bombarded by pictures of terrorism in the press almost on a daily basis. There is very littler media coverage on places like Indonesia, even though Aceh has adopted broadly the same legal system as Saudi Arabia. I don’t know whether there is a subconscious reason for this lack of coverage but I would suggest two possible factors.
The first is that the critique of Indonesia is about the minutia of their legal system rather than openly barbaric acts of terrorism. Although caning people in Aceh is commonplace, they are less dramatic than, for example, the terror videos of ISIS. In the news business ISIS can sell ads because it is dramatic, but the caning of women for standing near their boyfriends is not as commercially ‘sexy’.
The second is that most people think about news in terms of their own personal lives. When there is a hurricane in the United States, someone in Britain may feel empathetic but in the back of their mind they are relieved that that misfortune hasn’t befallen them. There’s nothing particularly cruel about this subconscious thought but this creates a demand for news that is only ‘relevant’ to the everyday lives of viewers. In my ideal world there would be lots of news about a whole range of subjects so that people’s intellectual curiosity could be stoked. In other words, terrorism could impact British people’s daily lives whereas the plight of women in one Indonesian peninsula is unlikely to do so.
If we are truly are going to fight religious fundamentalism then we need to think more broadly than what is in our rational self-interest. If I walk down the street I’m not going to get attacked by a man in religious garb for standing net to someone I find attractive. The plight of people in Indonesia doesn’t affect me directly but I would encourage everyone to be internationalist in their outlook. When ISIS sets off a car bomb in Syria, that impacts me. When the KKK put a burning cross on a black family’s lawn, that impacts me. When women a persecuted for normal behaviour, that impacts me. Fundamentalism isn’t deterred by international borders, and nor should our criticisms of it.