Pluralism, Indonesia's historic strength

Lubna Ahmed Al Hussein is not a household name in Indonesia. Not many people anywhere in the world knew of this female Sudanese journalist until earlier this month, when her name hit the headlines for her courage to challenging her government by refusing to admit that she committed a crime.

She was charged with breaking a law that forbids women from wearing clothes that cause "public uneasiness" - she was wearing a blouse and trousers in a restaurant in Khartoum.

Wearing trousers in public is considered indecent for a woman under the strict interpretation of sharia law adopted by the Sudanese regime, and the penalty for being caught is a flogging.

While ten women who were caught with Lubna immediately admitted guilt and were fined 250 Sudanese pounds (US$120) and flogged two days later at a police station, Lubna and two others decided to go on trial to challenge the law, which she believes is archaic and oppressive.

Sadly, in some parts of the world, people still must fight for the most basic personal rights that many of us take for granted.

Its good that Indonesia is not Sudan. Home to the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia is not a country based on religion but a democratic state with a constitution guaranteeing freedom of belief and expression.

But while we proudly say that we live in a democratic country, unfortunately, a vocal radical fringe, led by some extremist groups in the society who openly or implicitly try to destabilize the state ideology and Indonesian unity, is increasingly pulling the country in a more conservative direction.

In July this year, one of these groups organized a meeting in Jakarta attended by no less than 7,000 members and delegates from Indonesia and other countries, to call for the creation of a unified Caliphate spanning the entire Islamic world.

The government did nothing to prevent or stop the meeting of the group, whose goal is to overthrow the Indonesian ideology of Pancasila. The reluctance of the government to nullify some 600 sharia-based and inspired by-laws passed by local governments is another blow to democracy.

Even though Aceh is so far the only province fully governed under sharia law, at least 50 regencies in 16 of Indonesia's 33 provinces have now implemented sharia-based by-laws, including dress codes for women.

In Padang municipality for example, both Muslim and non-Muslim female students are required to wear a hijab (headscarf) on certain days. We also remember the wrongful arrests of female night-shift workers at a factory in Tangerang, who were charged with prostitution under a law that forbids women from walking alone on the street after 10 p.m.

Not only do such laws undermine democracy, they impact unfairly on women and minority groups, violate the pluralism guaranteed by our constitution and are also dangerous for national integration.

If sharia-based laws are allowed in Indonesia, can other areas with a large population of other religions implement Christian, Buddhist or Hindu laws?

Criticism of the laws has not only been voiced by members of religious minorities. The voices of moderate Islamic organizations, like the Muhammadiyah and NU are loud and clear: They support pluralism in line with Pancasila and do not support sharia by-laws, which they argue will just lead to disintegration.

Indeed, the Koran supports pluralism: "The Prophet Muhammad was sent as a mercy on humankind and not to force people to compel (Chapter 3: verse 164, Chapter 21: verse 107, Chapter 50: verse 45). Persuasion is the very principle of Islam, and not to force. "There is no compulsion in religion" (Chapter 2 verse 256). "Humankind is created into many tribes, races and nations. Humankind speaks many languages and is of many colors and that is to get know each other." (Chapter 49: verse13, Chapter 30: verse 22)."

Citizenship in Indonesia is based on nationality, not religious beliefs. The independence of Indonesia was the result of efforts by all members of the nation from different ethnicities and religions.

Should we forget and ignore the sacrifice of those who fought for our nation, and risk fighting and violence following the adaptation of a new ideology which doesn't reflect our local values?

I hope Lubna Ahmed Al-Husein wins her case on Sept. 7, because the issue is not just about women wearing pants; it is about women's rights and human rights. I hope also that Indonesia will always support and strengthen democracy.

The writer is an alumnae of University of East Anglia, England (MA in Development Studies), currently living in Bangkok.

Drug policy revolution in Indonesia?

Mexico passed a controversial law on Aug. 20, 2009, decriminalizing people's personal use of drugs. Under the new law, the maximum amount of marijuana that can be considered for personal use is 5 grams - the equivalent of about four marijuana cigarettes. Other limits are half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and 0.015 milligrams of LSD.

Anyone caught with possession of drug amounts below and up to the allowed limit for their personal use will be encouraged to seek treatment. For those caught a third time, treatment is mandatory - although there are no specified penalties for noncompliance.

This demand-reduction policy contradicts the supply-reduction policy adopted by the Mexican government. In terms of supply reduction, Mexico uses a traditional approach to national security and transnational crime reduction. The use of police and military forces is chosen by the government to reduce the supply of illicit drugs into Mexico.

Without doubt, the decriminalization policy is a progressive effort to humanize people who use drugs. Addiction in general, including addiction to all kind of drugs, is no longer viewed as a kind of behavior. Through this new policy, it is already being viewed as a kind of disease. Some experts define addiction as a chronic disease similar to other chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Based on this perspective, punitive sanctions for drug users, such as detention, is no longer adopted in Mexico. The government believes that people who use drugs need health treatment. Drug addiction rehabilitation facilities should be established to fulfill their needs for health treatment, care and support for a full recovery.

Mexico's decriminalization program was followed by its neighbors, including Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia. Argentina's Supreme Court decriminalized small-scale use of marijuana on Aug. 25, 2009, opening the way for a shift in the country's drug-fighting policies to focus on traffickers instead of users.

Bolivia was the leading country in the region in the revolution on drug policy. But the Bolivian government did not use any health paradigms such as Mexico did. Bolivia used a cultural paradigm to decriminalize the traditional habit of chewing the coca leaf.

Bolivia President Evo Morales stated in his speech at the United Nations high-level meeting in Vienna on March 11, 2009, that coca leaves were not viewed as a kind of narcotic in Bolivia. Chewing coca leaves is a cultural value that cannot be eradicated from Bolivia.

Morales also urged the UN to revise the single convention on narcotic drugs (1961) as well as to decriminalize the coca leaf and the people who chew it for cultural reasons.

While the Mexican and Bolivian governments criticize the "wrong" international drug policies, the Indonesian government still keeps those international policies as basic standards to define its own drug policy.

Indonesia is one of the countries that has ratified the trio of international drug policies: single convention on narcotic drugs (1961), convention on psychotropic substances (1971), and UN convention against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances (1988).

The Indonesian government has been trying to revise its national policy on narcotic drugs since 2005. Its revision process became a huge issue among members of parliament when discussions led to the criminalization of people who use drugs and the role of a national narcotics board (BNN) in dealing with the illicit trafficking of drugs in Indonesia.

In the development of the revised policy, the government still believes that consuming drugs is a criminal act. In order to deal with that perspective, any person who uses drugs should be punished through the criminal justice system. The aim of this punishment is to provide shock therapy for people who use drugs, with the assumption that they will no longer touch any narcotic drugs.

Based on those facts, it seems the Indonesian government is still unaware of, and does not understand, the concept of addiction - that people who are addicted to any kind of narcotics do not need to be detained by the authorities. What they need as human beings is treatment and support in order for them to fully recover.

An important question for the Indonesian government to consider: Will the government lead a revolution on its drug policy, just like Mexico and Bolivia did, in order to humanize people who use drugs in Indonesia and to protect generations of Indonesians from any illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs?

The writer works with the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association as head of the conflict area division.