Indonesia's 'millennials party' draws fire for comments on sharia bylaws

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Police in Muslim-majority Indonesia have questioned the head of one of its newest and most progressive parties, who is battling accusations of “Islamophobia” from rival politicians, after she said her party opposed the growth of bylaws based on religion.

FILE PHOTO: The leader of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), Grace Natalie, poses for a photograph in her office at the party's headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia March 19, 2018. Picture taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside/File Photo

Indonesia is officially secular and has a tradition of pluralism but Islam has increasingly crept into politics in a country home to significant Christian, Hindu and other religious minorities.

Grace Natalie set up the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), often dubbed the “millennials party”, in 2014 to offer an alternative for young voters disillusioned by traditional parties often run by an entrenched elite.

In a speech this week attended by President Joko Widodo, Natalie, who is ethnic Chinese, spoke out against intolerance, saying PSI would not support local regulations based on Islamic law or Christian scripture.

“We want to return back to the constitution so that there is a guarantee for all citizens, whatever their background, or religion they believe, or faith they have,” said Natalie, whose party is part of a coalition backing Widodo’s bid for a second term in 2019 elections.

Police questioned Natalie following a complaint filed by Eggi Sudjana, a lawyer and politician of an Islamic party, who told Reuters her comments breached laws on hate speech and attacked religion. He urged her to apologize.

Some rival politicians also accused her of “Islamophobia”, while defending the adoption of bylaws based on sharia or religious values.

Jakarta police are still investigating to determine if any law was broken, said spokesman Argo Yuwono.

In a party statement, Natalie said that during six hours of questioning she had told police her speech referred to “a willingness to implement equality and justice for all citizens before the law”.

She also said it was based on an academic study showing how religion-based rules could affect women and minority groups.

The only province in Indonesia allowed to enforce Islamic law is Aceh, but other regions have adopted bylaws enforcing elements of sharia.

Such bylaws were divisive, said Muhammad Abdullah Darraz, director of the Maarif Institute, which promotes religious and cultural harmony, who defended Natalie.

“We have witnessed identity politics recently emerging and it has the potential to divide the unity of the nation,” he said.

Indonesia’s state ideology includes national unity, social justice and democracy alongside belief in God, and enshrines religious diversity in a secular system of government.

But religious and political tension has spiraled in the last few years after Islamists led hundreds of thousands in Jakarta protests against the capital’s then governor, an ethnic Chinese Christian charged with insulting the Koran.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Widodo ally, lost his bid for re-election in 2017 to a Muslim rival after a radical group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) agitated against him for months.

He was jailed for two years over blasphemy.

Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez