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Indonesia targets niqab and 167 Islamic books to counter rising tide of extremism

South China Morning Post - November 14, 2019

Amy Chew – An Indonesian ministry last week banned its staff from wearing the niqab, or full-face veil, while on duty, as the government grapples with a rising tide of extremism and intolerance in the country.

Tjahjo Kumolo, the Minister of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform, told local media employees still had a choice to wear the garment when not working.

"In my opinion, when at work, it's better not to wear niqab. Just wear it outside the office," Tjahjo was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Globe. "If it is outside the office, wearing the niqab is each citizen's fashion right," the minister said, adding that all workers should wear their uniforms.

Indonesia's Religious Ministry was also considering adopting the same ban, while announcing plans to replace 167 Islamic textbooks deemed to contain extremist or intolerant material in schools by the end of the year.

"The intention is so that religious teachings can make students more tolerant and appreciate others who are different from them," said Kamaruddin Amin, director general for Islamic Education at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

In another initiative, the government on Tuesday launched a website for the public to report "radical content" shared by public servants, to combat hardline Islamist ideology permeating the civil service.

Communications Minister Johnny G. Plate said the website aimed "to bring together and improve the performance of our civil servants, as well as to foster higher levels of nationalism".

A 2017 survey by independent Jakarta-based pollster Alvara Research Centre found that one in five civil servants and 10 per cent of state enterprise workers did not agree with the secular state ideology Pancasila, and instead favoured an Islamic theocratic state.

The measures, announced just weeks after President Joko Widodo's new cabinet was sworn in, are viewed as an attempt to push back against intolerance and the continued spread of jihadist ideology online in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Indonesia has suffered a string of terror attacks in the past 20 years, committed by both home-grown radical groups and Islamic State affiliates.

Communities such as the minority Muslim Ahmadiyya sect, LGBTI groups, and non-Muslim places of worship have also come under increasing attacks by Islamic vigilantes.

On Wednesday, a suicide blast went off at a police station in Medan city, northern Sumatra, killing the bomber and injuring six civilians.

Observers and a human rights group said while there was a need to combat radicalisation, the government's measures were "shallow" and did not address the causes of violent extremism, such as discrimination and marginalisation.

Ismail Hasani, research director of rights group Setara Institute, said the initiatives were "not based on a comprehensive understanding of intolerance and radicalism".

"This will only give rise to new problems," he said. Ismail said the website inviting the public to report civil servants for sharing "radical content" was particularly "dangerous" as it could lead to abuse.

Others said the religious ministry's decision to revise contentious textbooks was not expected to be effective, as the subject of religion and the country's secular state ideology were taught separately.

"What is needed is an integration of the teachings of religion and Pancasila, [to show] that religion and Pancasila are partners in preserving diversity in Indonesia," said Robi Sugara, lecturer and counterterrorism analyst at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University.

The niqab ban led to protests from Islamic groups and also prompted moderate Muslim scholars to note that niqab wearers do not necessarily hold extremist views.

Yaqut Cholil Quomas, a politician from the National Awakening Party (PKB), said it was acceptable if the ban was a move to regulate work uniforms, but was problematic if it was based on the belief that all niqab wearers were "terrorists".

"Because those who wear the niqab are not necessarily radical, even though there has been several cases [of niqab-wearing terror suspects], like in the case of Wiranto's stabbing," said Yaqut, who is also a member of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organisation.

Former chief security minister Wiranto was last month stabbed in West Java by a member of Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local radical group affiliated to Islamic State, while his niqab-wearing wife attacked a police escort.

Siti Musdah Mulia, a Muslim scholar and human rights activist, said the niqab was not indigenous to Indonesia. It originated from Assyria in 25BC, long before the birth of Islam in the seventh century, and was worn then by aristocratic women.

"This means the niqab originated from non-Islamic and non-Arab traditions," said Siti, who is also chairperson of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace.

"The rise of the niqab in Indonesia took place in line with the spread of Salafi-Wahhabi groups and transnational Islam following the fall of New Order regime," she said, referring to the regime of the late President Suharto, who was ousted in 1998.

Although the religious garment is commonly worn in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, they are rare in Indonesia, where about 90 per cent of its 255 million people have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam.

The Niqab Squad, a community of 5,000 members established in 2017 to defend the rights of niqab-wearing women, expressed "sorrow" at the ban and hoped the government could find a "win-win" solution which did not involve them having to choose between their faith and "carrying out their duties to the nation".

"Sad and concerned because the niqab does not undermine the professionalism and competency of our friends who wear it," said Diana Nurliana, the group's founder.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/week-asia/politics/article/3037620/indonesia-targets-niqab-and-167-islamic-books-counter-rising