JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting that starts Friday, has typically been a relaxed affair in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. But in the last few years there has been rising intolerance against activities like selling food during daylight hours. This year, after a divisive election cycle that marked the first true emergence of Islamist politics in modern Indonesia, many are preparing for the most austere Ramadan in recent memory.
There has also been a spate of disturbing crackdowns on gay Indonesians and a suicide bombing attack Wednesday in an East Jakarta train station. Experts have speculated that at least one factor behind the former is a desire for high-profile value signaling before the holy month.
For at least the last five years, hard-line groups like the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) have staged unofficial sweeps of restaurants, bars and clubs they claim disrespect Ramadan, during which Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, alcohol and sex from dawn to dusk.
Last year, a 53-year-old food stall proprietor in West Java was attacked by local officials for preparing food in daytime during Ramadan and forced to go into hiding. Jakarta’s Chinese-Christian governor Ahok tried to stem these groups, which operate outside official legal channels. But Ahok was unseated last month after an election during which his opponent actively allied with Islamist groups like FPI and heavily promoted his Muslim identity. As such, the country’s secular facade is dropping.
The emergence of Islamic majoritarianism means this year’s Ramadan will be more strict on a societal level, said Alissa Wahid, national coordinator of the GUSDURian Network for social activism.
“Even though the police has repeatedly stated that sweeping won’t be allowed… in the past they generally actually took a soft stand [with them], either helping or escorting the sweepings,” Wahid said.
Although Indonesia is an officially secular country that recognizes and protects six religions, Sharia-inspired bylaws have been on the rise in recent years — numbering about 440 in 2015, according to one researcher’s estimate.
Both the police and the FPI habitually raid red-light districts and other sites of the sex trade before and during Ramadan. In 2011, FPI illicitly raided bars in Surabaya, East Java. That can be seen as a precedent for the last Sunday’s bust of a popular gay sauna in Jakarta, where 141 men were arrested at a “sex party.” Earlier in May, 14 gay men in Surabaya were arrested at a similar party and forced to have HIV tests. This week, West Java police announced a task force to target gay Indonesians.
The fact that all of these occurred in close succession is typical of the “virtue” based crackdowns before Ramadan, said Dede Oetomo, a prominent gay rights activist.
“There’s very little social cost to it because few people vocally defend LGBT rights in Indonesia,” he said.
Although it had been on the books for two months, Indonesia’s first caning of a gay couple for homosexuality, in the conservative, Sharia-ruled province of Aceh, happened Tuesday, adding grim context to the other raids.
Another twist to this turbulent month came in the form of a suicide bombing in an East Jakarta bus station Wednesday that killed three policemen and one of the bombers. Details are still emerging on the motivation behind the attack, but it adds to the chaotic feel of Indonesian current events.
Terrorist attacks frequently spike during Ramadan as extremist groups interpret the holy month’s imperative for heightened good conduct as a call to jihad.
The whole story
How the next month unfolds in Indonesia will be of interest. Bad news tends to monopolize headlines, and can distort the reality of most Indonesians’ Muslim life. Islam has been in the archipelago for at least eight centuries and been absorbed into hundreds of local cultures. Indonesians have historically debated even the starting date for Ramadan — it hinges on a point about sighting the full moon — which points to the plurality of traditions that can be good-naturedly accommodated in the region.
“My stall will be open for business all day every day, Ramadan or not,” said Ahmad, an observant Muslim who runs a fried-noodle food stall in South Jakarta. “I’m not worried about any sweeping. I don’t even care if Muslims come to eat here during Ramadan. It’s just not important. For me, or,” — he gestured to the row of vendors sharing the sidewalk with him — “really any of us.”