10/12/2004, 00.00
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Indonesian Muslims debate polygamy and inter-faith marriages

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – A proposal to ban polygamy and allow inter-faith marriages is stirring up controversy among Indonesian Muslims.

Siti Musdah Mulia, chief researcher at Indonesia's Ministry of Religious Affairs, is proposing a number of changes to Sharia or Islamic law. She and her research team are calling for the abolition of polygamy and legalisation of mixed marriages between people of different religions.

Under the current law would-be spouses must belong to the same religion. If one of the two is of a different faith, either one or the other must convert since the state recognises only marriages performed by clerics or religious officials.

According to Ms Mushad Mulia this type of reform is now possible because in 2001 the Office of the State Minister for Women's Empowerment introduced the so-called "Zero Tolerance" policy that laid the foundation for a national drive against any form of violence.

One type of violence that must be eliminated is culturally-based. "We identified some of the roots of culturally driven violence," she said, "in some of the articles of Islamic law."

In 2002, the Directorate General of Religious Judiciary at the Ministry of Religious Affairs proposed a bill that would reform the role of religious courts and change marriage and inheritance laws. But the draft only copied and pasted Sharia principles without any significant changes. For instance, the bill allowed for a 20 million rupiahs (US$ 2,000) fine to be levied on those who practiced polygamy unlawfully. "But who would monitor violations? And how could the police do that when the ministry does not have officers?" she said. "Even if the law was strictly implemented, it would be prone to corruption. It would be better to ban polygamy all at once instead".

Ms Musdah Mulia also disagrees with those who say that her proposal represents a "revolution" within Sharia. In her opinion, abolishing polygamy is not new to Muslim societies. Tunisia did it 1959; Turkey did it later. And she is not discouraged by the emerging parliamentary opposition. "We expect people to open up their minds and see that Sharia is not 'sacred' in the sense that it cannot change. It is instead debatable and revisable. It is a body of laws made by and for humans."

Sharia Law was adopted in 1991 by presidential decree. It was a government response to complaints about inconsistent verdicts by the religious courts using different fiqih (Islamic jurisprudence).

Speaking about inter-faith marriages, Ms Musdah Mulia said that "should a Muslim not agree with it, you cannot order others to follow your belief". In fact, mixed marriages between people of different religions are not rare in Indonesia.

Out of a population of 212 million people, Muslims represent 87.2 per cent of the total. Christians are about 9.7 per cent or 20 million (7 million Catholics). There are also Hindus (1.8 per cent) and Buddhists (1 per cent). (MH)

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