Interfaith marriage remains
sensitive issue

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

In a recent media workshop on pluralism and cross-cultural understanding, the participants shot up their hands, like a bunch of second graders competing for candies to answer the teacher's question.

Only, it was not a question that prompted them to raise their hands and ask permission to interject.

It was a statement from speaker Siti Musdah Mulia, an Islamic jurisprudence researcher and gender expert, who claimed that, contrary to common perception, Islam actually does not forbid interfaith marriage.

A disapproving journalist said that as he would like to have a wife and children, to pursue heaven and the same God together, it would be impossible if his wife was of a different religion.

Musdah said that it was as if the journalist was playing God, as God Himself did not require that.

""Do you think there are many Gods? Do you think that people of different religions do not want to pursue heaven?"" she said before the workshop sponsored by the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP).

Another journalist insisted that Islamic law did not condone interfaith marriage, forgetting the fact that Musdah has experience and expertise in Islamic jurisprudence.

This is just a little illustration of how interfaith marriage remains one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Indonesian society, involving a potential tinder box of emotion-laden questions of right and wrong, the state and the individual's right to choose a partner.

Law No. 1/1974 rules out interreligious unions, stating that a marriage is only legal when it is conducted according to one religion, which supports the stance of opponents of interfaith marriage.

In 2001, there was a report on a consortium that was working on a bill to legalize interfaith marriage for those wishing to retain their respective religions.

Nothing has been heard of the consortium or the bill since then. But even if it is realized, entrenched attitudes in society cannot be changed overnight.

Parents fear others' assertions that they did not bring up their children ""properly"", and condemnation from religious leaders.

But the fact remains that there are many couples of different religions out there, wanting to get married.

Many couples circumvent the law by getting married under one religion, but then practice their respective faiths.

Others with more financial resources opt to go abroad to wed, with Singapore being the favorite choice. But many often complain of the long waiting list and residential restrictions they have to deal with in order to wed in the island state.

Another problem with overseas weddings is that the couples still have to register their marriage in Indonesian civil courts, which could take a while and cost quite an amount of money.

To ease the complications, Wulan, a 27 year-old Catholic, opted to bribe officials to make a new ID card indicating that she is a Muslim so that she could marry boyfriend Doddy, a Muslim.

But she was lucky because both she and Doddy's families are not rigid about religion.

Endah, 29, meanwhile, is torn between her family, who insists that she cannot marry Catholic boyfriend Eko unless the latter converts to Islam, and her feelings.

""I love my family, but I feel that my feelings are not being taken into account. Somehow, I'm being subordinated and marginalized as a woman, because things would be different if I were a man, as Muslim men can marry women of other religions,"" she said.

Paramadina Foundation, an Islamic learning center known for promoting religious tolerance, used to provide services for couples of different religions to marry.

One of the couples who had married there was Devi, a Christian, and Budiman, a Muslim, who had an exchange of vows under Islam, followed by a civil registration and ending in a Christian blessing.

However, such a service is no longer available as threats from other parties made the foundation stop its service several months ago.

Kautsar Azhari Nor, a former member of the executive board at Paramadina Foundation, which is headed by prominent Muslim scholar Nurcholis Madjid, said that people here were still not ready for the idea of interfaith marriage.

""So, legalization of interfaith marriages will remain a dream for many people,"" he said.

Muslim scholar Zainun Kamal said that the existence of Islam-based political parties had complicated the matter.

It is such a pity, he added, because the Koran states that Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women, and there is neither a prohibition nor approval for Muslim women to marry men from other religions.

""But our government has prohibited interfaith marriage so what else can we say,"" said Zainun, who is willing to marry couples of different faiths if asked.

He said that the Ministry of Religious Affairs is undeterred by a proposal from Muslim scholars to revise the Marriage Law.

The threat to Paramadina Foundation is very regrettable, and a setback.

According to Zainun, even in Muslim countries like Egypt, interfaith marriage is allowed although it is still limited to the choice of the Muslim male.

""You could see that the late Palestinian prime minister Yasser Arafat, who is a Muslim, married a non-Muslim,"" he said.

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