Sex, drugs and confusion: Sharia law in Bali?

Nov 5, 2022
Woman in hat near the sea on beach with tropical cocktail, back view

Bali tourism is slowly picking up as Covid apparently retreats. The new threats are laws on drugs, religion and sex.

All set for an Indonesian holiday? Hotel booked and checked? Rooms big and clean, grand views across cascading ricefields? Everything eco and sustainable, and it looks as good as the ads.

Welcome, have a fruit juice. Passports? Thank you. Credit cards – great. Just one more thing, please: Proof of marriage.

Disclosure: This happened with my non-Muslim wife so I vouch hell hath no fury like an Indonesian woman insulted. It was our fault – we hadn’t noticed one important word on the website – Syariah.

Sometimes spelt Sharia, it means the hotel follows Islamic law and shuts out unwed couples. Nor will it serve booze and forget bacon rashers for brekkie. Also, no men in the pool when well-wrapped women are bathing.

Although Indonesia claims to be secular, almost 90 per cent follow Islam. The strictest want to turn the state into a theocracy, currently not violently, but stealthily with the tools of their enemy, democracy. A bill to be debated next month targets extra-marital sex with a maximum prison term of a year or a fine. A Bali newspaper editorialised that even before any new law ‘officials in remote regions of Bali and across the rest of the Republic show little mercy to those caught engaging in extra-marital sex.’

A staple for the tabloid media are videos of raids (‘sweepings’) by white-clad gangs on cheap hotels where youngsters and the upper classes go for nookie. There’s no sanctuary for same-sex couples or atheists. Both parties in a marriage must share the same religion, one of six approved by the government.

To placate anxious foreigners, tourist chiefs are laughing away the risks reminding that in the draft legislation complaints to the cops must be made by an aggrieved relative. While Indonesia has some loony laws these can be like Australian casino controls: On the books to appease the reformers, not dissuade the owners and users.

So the apologists reason that unlicensed lovemakers will probably be ignored, though offering no guarantees.

Despite the prurience, the people next door have no aversion to coupling. Two babies were born while you read this paragraph. That’s almost 4.7 million more Indonesians so far this year. Sure, oldies die. But they can’t keep up – or in these grave matters – down. The population growth is almost three million a year.

Unsurprisingly the hospitality industry isn’t turned on by the idea of questioning guests about their intimacies. They fear horror yarns of police thumping bedroom doors will encourage the unwed to unbook.

Then they might flee to Thailand which has suddenly become a much cooler vacation spot, though this has nothing to do with the weather.

To empty overcrowded jails and fill empty hotels, the Buddhist kingdom’s ideologues have discovered pragmatism. They’ve partly relaxed their once ferocious hostility to narcotics allowing marijuana to be grown and smoked, though meth and other hard drugs still draw long jail terms.

The new laws are supposed to confine hash use to homes, but if social media hyper-tweets are any guide the weed is openly on sale and being widely smoked and eaten in public. An ABC TV programme Is Thailand the new weed capital of the world? showed tourists on highs they’ll never legally get in the mountains around Ubud.

The chairman of the Indonesian Employers’ Association Hariyadi Sukamdani, reportedly wants the Indonesian Parliament to hold a public hearing before any vote is taken on the bonking ban. That might breathe some sense into the debate.

The chances of the parliament passing a law to regulate bedroom behaviour depend on how the polis read the power of conservatives. Three of the nine parties in Parliament are Islamic. Together they hold around a quarter of the 575 seats.

There are challenging issues aplenty to keep them busy – but their influence is ring-fenced. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has formed a powerful coalition mustering almost all political positions and shutting off opposition inside the Legislature.

The religious parties have many serious concerns bleating for attention, particularly the brutal treatment of Muslims in Myanmar and their alleged persecution in China, but outrage seems to be confined to Israel’s handling of Palestinians. Domestically inflation needs prompt attention, but wrestling with growth rates, deficits and taxation demands effort.

Who’d risk pulling an intellectual muscle by dashing onto the field of foreign affairs or the national economy? Better play around with something safe to get headlines: Games in bed.

But with loosening laws on ganja, there’ll be unanimous opposition. The never-ending War on Drugs is proclaimed on huge posters across the archipelago featuring stern-faced generals wagging swagger sticks. Politicians regularly warn of mortalities and slippery-slope dangers but cite no stats. The death penalty remains for traffickers.

Apart from the faith lobby’s fury, much face would be lost in following the Thais. So no reform even if it means Bali hotels – currently under 40 per cent occupancy rate – will close or turn to the pensioner trade should the young abandon Kuta for Koh Samui.

Progressives, human rights activists, economists, law reformers and hoteliers might privately applaud the Thai change and wish it might blow south.

But in the present social and political climate, any Indonesian leader saying so in public would be like Trump urging deletion of the Second Amendment from the US Constitution.

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