Why Is Obama's Meeting with Indonesian President Important?

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 22: Denmark's Queen Margrethe II (L 2) and her husband Prince Henrik Consort (L) meet Indonesian
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 22: Denmark's Queen Margrethe II (L 2) and her husband Prince Henrik Consort (L) meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R 2) and First Lady Iriana Joko Widodo (R) after arriving at Presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on October 22, 2015. The Danish royal couple is on a five-day visit to the country. (Photo by Azqa Harun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There are lots of reasons why President Barack Obama is meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo today in Washington. Indonesia doesn't often get the attention it deserves, but it is a key country with major links to the United States. It's in the G7, and millions of its citizens or former citizens live in the US.

Most important, Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world, with a Muslim population that outstrips all other countries in the Middle East and North Africa in size. Because it has a democratic system of governance, President Obama and other US officials have often spoken of it as a "model" for a tolerant Muslim majority country--it's a point made so often it's become cliché.

The problem is, the cliché is a fiction.

The truth is that Indonesia's legal system is infested with discriminatory laws restricting the rights of religious minorities and women. There are, for instance, laws prohibiting women from straddling motorcycles or wearing pants, and regulations on the length and type of skirts and headscarves they must wear. Churches and other non-Sunni faiths face discriminatory legal provisions.

Fully one-fifth of Indonesia's 514 regencies and cities currently have rules requiring women--especially female students and civil servants--to wear the hijab. The hijab is also imposed on Christian girls in some areas, such as West Sumatra. In some places, other regulations allow female genital mutilation and child marriage. Indonesia's official Commission on Violence against Women has reported that Indonesia had a total of 279 discriminatory local regulations in 2014.

In terms of the oft-cited religious tolerance, Indonesia's religious minorities, including Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadiyya Muslims; Christians; Bahai; secularists; and followers of local faiths, face recurring threats and violence from Islamist militant groups. Earlier in October, Muslim vigilantes forced the closure of five Christian churches in Singkil, in southern Aceh province, claiming they did not have permits from the majority Muslim community.

Hyper-conservative religious groups in Indonesia, like the Islamic Defenders Front, have carried out attacks on religious minorities--and have not been punished. They all too often enjoy the power of the heckler's veto. Their supporters have broken up book readings and film screenings, and forced cancellations of musical concerts. In 2012, the Islamic Defenders Front threatened to target a Lady Gaga concert and burn down the show's venue, a stadium with seating for more than 50,000. Instead of arresting the organizers for these threats against tens of thousands of their citizens, the government advised Lady Gaga's staff to cancel the show, which they did.

The semi-autonomous region of Aceh, in northern Sumatra, is an especially intolerant area. Islamic law bylaws create discriminatory offenses that do not exist in the regular Indonesian criminal code, criminalizing alcohol drinking, consensual same-sex sexual acts, homosexuality, and all sexual relations outside of marriage. These bylaws permit, as punishment, up to 100 lashes by whip and up to 100 months in prison. In September, Sharia police in Aceh arrested two young "suspected lesbians" in Aceh's capital for hugging in public. Islamic vigilante groups have also harassed and detained transgender women there and in other parts of the country.

Indonesia's LGBT community in general is under threat. Earlier this year, Indonesia's Ulema Council (MUI), an influential Muslim clerical organization, issued a fatwa calling for same-sex behavior to be punished by a range of physical punishment from caning up to the death penalty.

And then there are the virginity tests. Human Rights Watch has recently documented how Indonesia's national police and armed forces require female applicants, as well as spouses-to-be of military officers, to take unscientific and degrading "virginity tests." The practice has been going on for decades, and over the years, tens of thousands of women have had to undergo this intrusive and often painful ordeal. When confronted about the practice more recently, government officials have told Human Rights Watch that the policy is necessary to keep sex workers from joining the military or police.

Jokowi is a new president. He's only been in office for a year. He isn't responsible for this dark legacy of discrimination and violence. But he is now best-positioned to do something about it.

President Obama, who spent time in the country as a youth, is best placed to urge him to do so. Jokowi is already pledging to take major steps to reform Indonesia's legal system in the context of business and investment--removing or changing hundreds of local laws that restrict foreign companies and foreign workers. Obama and other business leaders should be pressing him to put just as much emphasis on changing laws and policies that harm women, LGBT people, and religious minorities.

Indonesia can be a model for a tolerant, multi-faith society--but only if its government does the hard work of nurturing genuine pluralism and tolerance. Reciting clichés is not enough.

John Sifton is Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSifton.