Ramadan Lunch Raid Spotlights Religious Intolerance in Indonesia

An ever-weary 52-year-old housewife named Saeni lies on the floor of her tiny, humble rental house in the town of Serang in West Java, feverish and sick, she says, after having made national headlines for the past two weeks in a brouhaha that has alarmed many over the growing clout of conservative Islamists.

“I can’t sleep. I can hardly eat, and I get headaches all the time now,” Saeni told Asia Sentinel.

Shortly after the start of Ramadan, Saeni’s food stall and those of other vendors in Serang were raided, their food seized and their stalls closed by the city’s Public Order Agency (Satpol PP, a police militia), supposedly for violating the city Regulation No. 2/2010 on the “prevention, eradication and control of social diseases.”

The real crime was opening in the afternoon during Ramadan, which mandates fasting for Muslims from dawn to dusk for a month.

A video that showed Saeni crying and asking officers not to seize her food went viral on social media and was shown on national television, attracting a public rebuke against the Serang administration and highlighting the growing sway of religious conservatives in a heretofore laid-back country. The trend of enacting Islamic bylaws to force believers to get in line began mushrooming after the fall of the late strongman Suharto in 1998 and has since given Muslim hardliners the cover to take the law into their own hands.

Among those who reacted sharply to the police action in Serang was President Joko Widodo himself, who sent a delegation and a donation of Rp1 million (US$75.08) to Saeni, who said she was at a loss for words as she tried to calm herself, suffering from breathing problems due to shock. "They told me to pay all my debts,” she said.

The campaign was sparked by popular stand-up comedian Dwika Putra, who immediately initiated the fundraising movement for the sellers in an attempt to help them recover their losses. Communicating with the public via Twitter, Dwika closed the fundraising campaign with donations reaching Rp265 million (US$20,380) from more than 2,400 donors. Tears streamed down Saeni’s face after learning that the viral movement had collected hundreds of millions of rupiah for her and the other Serang food vendors.

The raids also attracted the attention of Vice President Jusuf Kalla and Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo, who both disagreed with the Serang measures.

Kalla said that no authorities, including the Serang administration, were to ban food sellers from trading in the afternoons during Ramadan, because many do not fast including those who are ill, pregnant women and members of other religions.

But the outpouring support for Saeni doesn’t mean that she can now live free from disruptions.

After learning that she received donations and support, authorities saw it as an attack on their office. Some of the public complained that she shouldn’t receive donations for violating the regulations. Saeni also said she has received threats from people angered that her “mistake” was defended by netizens and the president.

The Serang regulation is a form of Sharia bylaw drafted and implemented by several local administrations in Indonesia. Many experts have warned that these local ordinances have the potential to trigger social conflicts in mixed communities.

Only two years after regional autonomy was launched in 1999, several regencies and municipalities in West Sumatra, Banten, West Java and South Sulawesi issued several such sharia-based bylaws in those predominantly Muslim provinces.

Many more followed suit, and by early 2010 more than 150 bylaws, regulations and circulars were found to be problematic, according to a national women’s rights body.

Aceh, with special autonomy under the 1999 Aceh Administration Law, has several bylaws regulating Islamic lifestyles and establishing an Islamic court. The province has also set up a special police force to enforce sharia.

Violators of Islamic bylaws may face penalties such as caning. The most controversial bylaw in Aceh has been one mandate stoning to death for people found guilty of adultery.

“We have arranged and told people to sell their food after 4 pm, so we took her food to the office but she can have it after 4 pm,” said Ahmad Yani, secretary to the Serang Satpol PP, adding that many Muslim clerics and Islamic organizations have shown support for them, adding that the incident involving Saeni should not deter them from performing their duty in upholding the regulation.

“This regulation is a form of local wisdom that reflects aspiration from the people of Banten province which has gone through series of legal discussion from the executive and local legislator. It is like how the Balinese Hindus who are observing the day of silence [Nyepi] and that all people who live in the island should respect and follow it,” he said.

He said the Satpol PP was first shocked by the criticism but they are now confident that the fuss will die down.

“I am sure truth will prevail. People will know that we are only carrying out our duty in upholding the regulations,” Ahmad Yani said.