Abdullah Gymnastiar is Indonesia’s modern face of moderate Islamic evangelism: a leather jacket often complements his white turban and he has a predilection for riding Harley-Davidsons. Close to the presidential couple, he has weekly radio sermons that are syndicated to 150 local stations.
Last week, the figurehead of new-age Islamic family values shocked his audience with the news he had taken a second, younger wife. Men and women had different “software”, Mr Gymnastiar said; women were wired for monogamy, while the cleric suggested men had more stereophonic inclinations.
The revelations have reinvigorated debate about the role of Islamic law in supposedly secular Indonesia, polygamy and attitudes to women, sex and morality.
Reverberations have spread into the presidential palace, where the mobile phones of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife overflowed with messages of concern following Mr Gymnastiar’s revelation.
Although conservative Islamic leaders have endorsed the taking of up to four wives — and anecdotally the practice appears increasingly common — moderates and women’s groups have condemned it as a misinterpretation of the Koran.
Feminists have expressed outrage at “economic” sexual abuse, but alleged Jemaah Islamiah spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir has weighed in, defending polygamy. “Polygamy is sharia. Whoever rejects it becomes an infidel,” he said, adding that husbands must treat each wife fairly — to the extent of allocating them an equal number of minutes.
Dr Yudhoyono has taken a different view, suggesting a law prohibiting some public servants from taking several wives be expanded to all in the public sector, including soldiers and politicians. Some clerics and political figures have reacted angrily, claiming any restrictions could lead to an increase in adultery and prostitution.
The debate has overlapped with the recent sex tape scandal that led to the resignation of a senior politician. If he had taken as a second wife the popular singer filmed in a compromising position it would not have been an issue, it was claimed.
A polygamist and secretary-general of the Justice and Prosperity Party, Anis Matta, said Muslims should have the option. “If a good match for the woman is already married and she is willing to become a second wife, then why not?
“This is also an option for men. This could be due to sexual need, or because a wife has difficulty becoming pregnant,” he said. Mr Matta said the practice could benefit orphans and widows.
The chairman of Indonesia’s supreme religious council, Ma’ruf Amin, said polygamy should only be permitted under strict conditions, and the husband must have the means.
By the end of the week, Dr Yudhoyono said the mushrooming debate was becoming a distraction, indicating a stricter application of the existing law could be a compromise solution.
Indonesia’s marriage law states that men may take more wives only if their first is an invalid, terminally ill or infertile. In reality, such conditions are not enforced.