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Indonesia’s misguided ban on burqa on campus

Earlier in the month Indonesia’s Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta caused a stir when it announced a ban against the wearing of burka on its premises. The moves had unsurprisingly prompted strong reactions from Islamists. Later, the university recanted. But the episode unwittingly tells us of the haphazard and incoherent nature of Indonesia’s push against radicalism in its education sector.

Indonesia’s misguided ban on burqa on campus

Indonesian women with face-concealing niqab headdress hang clothes out to dry. The rector of Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University banned full niqab head coverings this month, saying they were not a natural part of Indonesian culture. But after days of protests, he dropped the ban. Photo: Reuters

Earlier in the month, Indonesia’s Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta caused a stir when it announced a ban against the wearing of burqa on its premises, adding that 41 students had been identified as burqa-wearers and were undergoing ‘counseling’.

A few days later another state Islamic university, Sunan Ampel, in Surabaya followed suit.

The moves had unsurprisingly prompted strong reactions from Islamists. Forum Ukhuwah Islamiyah (FUI) immediately sent its members in their dozens to the Sunan Kalijaga campus to protest against the ban after which Deputy Rector Waryono recanted, saying no burqa ban exists but the university would continue to "counsel" burqa-wearing students.

The episode unwittingly tells us of the haphazard and incoherent nature of Indonesia’s push against radicalism in its education sector.

In introducing the ban, Sunan Kalijaga’s Rector Professor Yudian Wahyudi had said that it was to combat radical forms of Islam. He also argued that it was in line with the directive from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to promote moderate Islam.

He further told the press that the 41 students were also suspected of being involved in the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), banned by the government in 2017, as they had raised the HTI flag within the university.

In Indonesia’s system of patronage, it is difficult to imagine Prof Wahyudi had acted without backing from those above him. But, as subsequent events suggest, he was left to his own devices when controversies erupted as a result of his ban.

The only audible support for Prof Wahyudi’s tough stance came from the Nadhatul Ulema (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organisation. Its Yogyakarta chairman, Nizar Ali said the burka ban is in line with Sunan Kalijaga’s ‘vision and mission to promote moderate Islam.’

NU is known to have been courted by President Joko Widodo as an ally. As early as 2015, Mr Joko told his audience at the 33rd NU Grand Convocation that "tolerant and moderate Islam has taken root in Indonesia thanks to NU".

The President has also taken the time and trouble to pay his tour all the great NU schools, or pesantren, in the country.

Although Surabaya’s Sunan Ampel has also effected the ban, its rector Professor Abdul A’la chose to be more cautious, stressing that it was unfair to slap the label of radicalism on burqa wearers. “We ban it because it impedes communication. It could also be abused by people pretending to be others.”

Sunan Ampel has so far managed to evade having Islamists storm through its gates in protest but it is important to bear in mind radicals groups like FUI are far weaker in Surabaya than in Yogyakarta.

Muhammadiyah, the other traditional great Muslim organisation, however, reacted ambivalently. Its Ahmad Dahlan University in Yogyakarta, while requiring burqa-wearing students to uncover their faces when sitting for examinations, insisted that the policy was adopted because there had been instances in which students cheated by getting others to sit their examinations.

Deputy Chairman of the Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta branch Azman Latif went further by decrying the ban, saying it could "erode support for the government".

Opposition politicians like Gerindra’ss Zadli Zon was quick to condemn the ban. However, the issue seems to have thrown bureaucrats and politicians on the government’s side off guard, with most choosing caution in the face of adverse reactions from Islamists.

Ministry of Religious Affairs chief spokesman Masduki said that although state Islamic universities answer to both his ministry and the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, regulating dress code is the prerogative of each university.

The ministry’s director-general of Islamic studies Kamaruddin Amin promised investigation into the matter, "to see if the basis of the ban at Sunan Kalijaga was valid". But the Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education Mohamad Nasir expressed his disagreement with the ban, though he said that he would not intervene.

The ban also elicited protests from human rights organisations. Choirul Anam of Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights said that the ban was a potential infringement on human rights. Yogi Zul Fadli of Yogyakarta Legal Aid Foundation called it "discriminative" and "impinges on religious freedom".

The relationship between educational dress code and religious freedom has indeed been blurred in Indonesia lately.

A BBC Indonesia investigation last year revealed that many non-religious state schools force their non-Muslim female students to wear the hijab as part of their uniform.

The practice is also prevalent in regions where Islam is at its most conservative, like West Sumatra, West Nusa Tenggara and West Java.

Given the government’s rhetoric on promoting moderate Islam, it is surprising discriminatory practices like this continue unchecked at elementary and secondary education institutions.

What is noteworthy is that the Sunan Kalijaga’s burqa ban and others came around the same time the police cracked down on the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), charging it with “spreading hoaxes and communal hatred".

MCA first came to be during the criminal trial of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama for blasphemy against Islam in 2016.

Since then it has consistently conducted a negative campaign against Mr Joko, his administration and supporters.

The crackdown conveniently occurred ahead of 171 simultaneous regional elections in June, and the legislative and presidential elections next year.

Given that social media played a big part in influencing voters in the last 2014 elections, anti-government cyber groups like MCA could dent support basis for the government through sustained online smear campaign.

Radical Islamist groups like HTI are also known to oppose Mr Joko, hence their young cadres at various universities could also prove to be a liability for the government since most university students are of age to vote.

If the government, acting through university leadership, wanted to target radicalised students through the burqa ban, banning the already outlawed HTI on campus would have been more appropriate.

Going about it in a roundabout way is far less defensible and alienates civil society groups that may have been otherwise more supportive.

There is little doubt the ban, as a counter measure against radicalism, was poorly thought out, reflecting Indonesia’s fixation with symbols and stereotypes. Just as radical Islamist groups reject the conventional ambulance service for displaying the “Christian” cross, it would seem higher education institutions do not fare much better.

If the initiative indeed came from the top, the government did a poor job at defending it. Worse, its defeat may discourage Indonesia’s educational institutions from further attempts at moderating radicalism on their own turf.



Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.

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