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Impractical and unrealistic: why an Indonesian bill to ban alcohol would cause more problems than it solves

Most Muslim-majority countries don’t ban alcohol. Wahdi Septiawan/Antara Foto

Members of the Indonesian parliament have just proposed an alcohol prohibition bill, setting off a public debate.

This bill would criminalise the producers, distributors, sellers, buyers and consumers of alcoholic beverages. Violators would be sentenced to fines and prison time.

The parliament’s policy paper claims the bill aims to protect individual life and public order. But it is difficult to separate it from religious justification.

The majority of the bill’s sponsors are Islamic parties, such as the United Development Party (PPP) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), with a total of 69 seats (12.7%) in the parliament. They argue that alcohol should be prohibited because Islam forbids it.

Representatives from the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI), Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, backs this bill, saying a large majority of Indonesians (87%) are Muslim).

Based on other countries’ experiences, I argue the arguments for this bill are weak.

The implementation of this bill will not be practical nor realistic, especially considering the limitations of Indonesian law enforcement agencies and prison capacity.

Various views on alcohol prohibition in Islam

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population with around 209 million adherents, has repeatedly tried to ban alcohol.

Members of parliament proposed similar bills in 2009 and 2014, but none has been passed.

Now, some Islamic parties have proposed this bill once again with a religious narative: to enforce Islamic values.

Historically, alcohol prohibition and its punishment are not a uniform policy in Islam and Muslim-majority countries.

Alcohol prohibition and related punishments are varied, and have been among the most debated topics since Prophet Muhammad’s day. During this time, three gradual stages of khamr (alcohol from grapes) prohibition were mentioned in the Koran.

First, it was not prohibited, but avoiding it was encouraged. Second, alcohol intoxication was prohibited. Third was total prohibition of alcohol.

After his death, some Islamic scholars (ulema) and leaders differed over regulating alcohol prohibition.

They had disagreements over what was considered khamr – whether it is only wine or other alcoholic beverages and drugs – the intoxicated condition, and the standard of proof to punish alcohol drinkers.

Ahmad Bin Hanbal, Muslim jurist and founder of the Hanbali jurisprudence, agreed on total prohibition of consuming intoxicating substances, either alcohol or drug, no matter how much is consumed.

In the 20th century, there was a debate on alcohol prohibition in Islam.

Twentieth-century Muslim scholars refused the previous Muslim scholars’ agreement (ijma) that alcohol should be totally prohibited and subject to uniform state-imposed punishment (Hudud).

They said Hudud can only be imposed if the Koran specifically mentioned the punishment, and Prophet Muhammad did not strictly treat alcohol drinking as a Hudud offence.

One scholar who agreed with this view is Islamic law professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali at Islamic International University in Malaysia – Indonesia’s neighbour with a 60% Muslim majority.

Kamali argued that drinking alcohol is a taʿzīr offence, so prohibition and punishment depend heavily on individual circumstances, social conditions, and government or judicial discretion.

This variety of scholarly arguments and regulations created a state of non-uniformity in prohibiting alcohol among the 50 Muslim-majority countries.

Only five – Afghanistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan – prohibit alcohol.

Ten countries – Brunei Darussalam, Comoro, Iran, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria and Yemen – prohibit alcohol for Muslim citizens only.

The majority of Muslim-majority countries do not prohibit and only restrict or regulate alcohol production, distribution and consumption.

Economic reasons and the presence of non-Muslim citizens and immigrants are the reasons some of these countries do not totally prohibit alcohol.

Failure of prohibition

Alcohol prohibition does not guarantee reduced consumption and public security, as intended by the Indonesian legislators.

In Pakistan, the 1977 alcohol prohibition, which punishes violators with 80 lashes, failed to stop Pakistanis from drinking alcohol.

This prohibition had unintended consequences. Consumption of poisonous alcohol produced by the illegal industry and drug consumption both increased. Prohibition also led to increased bribery of the Pakistani police.

There were also increases in violence and extreme acts of terror. The alcohol prohibition seemed to give legitimacy to certain groups of people outside law enforcement to forcefully close and destroy liquor stores.

Alcohol prohibition was also a failure in a secular country. The 1919 prohibition in the United States (US) resulted in an increase in smuggling and bootlegging.

This practice fuelled the rise of the mafia, which profited by protecting those illegal businesses. This in turn resulted in violence and law enforcement corruption.

The US criminal justice system also became congested as many cases were brought to court. In the first 10 years of alcohol prohibition, 343,695 people were tried and convicted in the US courts.

Alcohol prohibition also crippled the US economy. Many alcohol industries collapsed, so US tax revenue significantly decreased.

Before alcohol prohibition, the US government collected US$226 million in tax from the alcohol industry in 1914. The US government lost about US$11 billion in tax revenue from alcohol during the prohibition era.

In Iran, total prohibition of alcohol led to social problems because of the stigmatisation of alcohol drinkers. The stigma was worse than for people who use drugs because the Koran specifically mentioned khamr (alcohol). As a result, they had difficulty in accessing treatment.

Indonesian law enforcement challenges

A prohibition on alcohol will be difficult to enforce in Indonesia.

From 2012-2014, the police recorded a total backlog of 44,273 cases. The judiciary also regularly has backlogs: 21,555 cases in 2016 and 27,212 in 2017.

Enforcing alcohol prohibition will increase the criminal case load of law enforcement agencies, as happened in the US. It will not only burden these agencies, but could also reduce the resources available to solve more serious and dangerous crimes.

Indonesian prisons could be even more crowded if alcohol was prohibited. Currently, the prison population is 241,130 people, exceeding a total capacity of 135,705 people.

The 2009 narcotic law caused this overcrowding. Before this law, only 3,183 people were imprisoned for drug-related crimes. The number multiplied 39 times after the law took effect.

Given the similarities with the narcotic law, we can expect a similar situation with alcohol prohibition.

Worse, unlike the narcotic law, the alcohol prohibition bill does not offer an alternative treatment to the people who consume or are addicted to alcohol. Fines and prison are the only options proposed.

This punitive approach could hinder efforts to reduce the harm associated with alcohol consumption and imprisonment.

I doubt the alcohol prohibition bill can create public security. This prohibition might also increase bribery to maintain the supply to meet demand for alcohol, as happened in Pakistan and the US.

This article was originally published in Indonesian

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