By Ben Otto and I Made Sentana
July 26, 2013
The Ramadan holiday season is in full swing in Indonesia, replete with the customary fasting, daylong traffic jams and evening reunions—and not a few markers of enduring growing pains as Southeast Asia’s largest country works to consolidate a young democracy.
Higher prices, morality raids and bribery fears are part of the Islamic holy month in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, in the run-up to the big fast-breaking Eid al-Fitr celebrations in early August. It triggers an outpouring of festivity, when people work less, see family more and welcome members of all faiths at sunset to end a long day’s fast. Batik dress comes out in force, adding visual splendour to the streets.
A Ramadan tradition for the past decade or so is an appeal to curb holiday gift-giving to officials and executives, an older Ramadan tradition that for decades sustained a cottage industry of homemakers wrapping goodwill packages of fruit, cookies and chinaware for easy delivery to the homes or offices of the officials and executives a few days before Eid al-Fitr. But in a country where corruption remains firmly entrenched 15 years after the downfall of authoritarian ruler Suharto, worries persist that small gifts can turn into major bribes. Almost a decade ago, a newly created Corruption Eradication Commission called on government offices to cease giving and receiving holiday gifts. Eventually the government made the exchange off limits.
Endis Firdaus, a professor of Islamic studies at Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia, said the gift giving seems to be a misinterpretation of Zakat (giving alms to the poor), one of the five pillars of Islam. “There seems to be a vested interest behind the tradition of giving gifts to government officials,” he said.
Reminders are part of the new Ramadan. The Supreme Court last week offered one that members of the high courts and district courts are barred from taking gifts from state officials or from giving gifts to members of the nation’s highest court. In the past week, a slew of governors have told staff the same. Companies regularly take out newspaper ads to state their policies of gift-rejection as part of corporate-governance initiatives.
It’s also “sweeps” month, when municipalities and hard-line groups try to put a lid on the more titillating parts of life. In Jakarta, home to almost 2,000 entertainment venues such as karaoke clubs and dangdut bars (dangdut being a popular music genre), the tourism office recently closed two venues and warned another for violating the mandatory limits on work hours during Ramadan. Elsewhere, many bars close early, offering alcohol at limited times if at all.
Last week, members of the hard-line FPI (Front Pembela Islam, or Islam Defenders Front) tried to shut down a red-light district in a central Java town by force. But area residents blocked them, local media reported, and in the ensuing confrontation a car carrying FPI members hit a motorcycle carrying a pregnant woman and her husband. The woman died and a riot ensued. The group apologized for the death this week. Police are investigating.
The FPI sees its duty as protecting society from social ills. The FPI sees “acts of immorality occurring right before their eyes, where the police don’t do a thing,” said Fahrudin, a professor of Islam at Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia. (Like many Indonesians he uses only one name.)
Islam is the religion of more than 200 million of Indonesia’s 240 million people. Though the tradition is overwhelmingly tolerant, conservative strains have grown in recent years. Human-rights campaigners have documented a surge in sectarian incidents, with a minority Muslim sect facing some of the worst abuses. However, violence has greatly abated since a wave of Islamic terrorism was largely defused in the past decade.
Ramadan is also the season of rising prices. Spending goes up as families buy gifts and splurge on meats and delicacies for breaking the fast. Beef prices have been at record prices since cattle imports were slashed in a government push for food self-sufficiency. This month the trade ministry removed the ban on imports, but prices remain high.
Finally, it’s also the time of presidential pardons, when thousands of the more than 150,000 prisoners at overcrowded jails across the country will be hoping for early release. Pardons generally come right after morning prayers on Eid al-Fitr, which is expected to fall Aug. 8 (it depends on the sighting of the new crescent moon), and convicts hope to get home in time for celebrations.