This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
For proponents of Islam’s strict sharia law, a society without smoking, music, and indecent clothing is a dream come true. In Indonesia, where a halal lifestyle (from halal cosmetics to halal tourism) is already available, that dream is a reality for thousands of families.
Herman Jaelani is the head of a Muslim-only, sharia-based neighbourhood known as Thoyibah, who moved there because it aligned with his beliefs.
“We live peacefully and openly with other residents,” Jaelani said. “But sometimes outsiders have no manners and just come as they please."
The neighbourhood of Thoyibah is located away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta, just across the Cikarang Bekasi river, roughly a two-hour drive from the capital. Surrounding the neighbourhood are warehouses and rice paddies. The only way to reach the small village is via a narrow dirt road.
There are 400 homes in the housing complex, but only 120 are occupied. The village is also home to an Islamic boarding school, a children’s Quran learning centre, a prayer hall, and a half-finished mosque. A sign on a pole that reads “Muslim Attire Only” greets everyone who enters Thoyibah.
Most Thoyibah residents do not own a TV. In 2017, a photo of a banner listing the rules of Thoyibah left many netizens concerned about the risks of having such a closed and exclusive society. The banner declared that women must wear a hijab, residents must pray five times a day, and banned smoking and music.
Jaelani made his way towards his house on the far side of the complex. On his front door, a sticker read “after you knock, give us time to put on our hijabs.”
Jaelani was one of the first residents to move to Thoyibah in 2017 and managed to secure the position of neighbourhood head. He also works a day job in the marketing department of a local business.
To live in Thoyibah, Jaelani must pay Rp148 million ($10,497) in installments over a 15-year period. The lease adheres to the sharia code of conduct, which means no interest or late fees. While Indonesia is full of sharia banks, not all can promise zero interest and fees.
“I think we’re the only village that implements sharia law in its truest sense, which is why I wanted to live here,” Jaelani said. “If you make a payment late, no one is going to come and repossess your home.”
Before moving to Thoyibah, Jaelani and his family lived in a diverse neighbourhood in Cikarang just over an hour drive from Jakarta, which only made him anxious about his future. Jaelani, like many other Thoyibah residents, believes places with mixed cultures and beliefs are a bad influence.
Many Thoyibah residents agree that pluralism without sharia law destroys morals. Jaelani had always dreamed of an orderly, homogeneous society where Islamic teachings reigned supreme. A neighbourhood without the gossiping aunties, loitering highschool dropouts, and drunk men playing cards.
“When we lived in a regular neighbourhood, my daughter only listened to popular music,” Jaelani said. “Now she just reads the Quran every day.”
The neighbourhood was once suspected of being a terrorist cell after it was accused of spreading intolerance. Police regularly monitored the village, especially following the spread of the banner in 2017.
In response, residents of Thoyibah began to implement a more moderate version of Islam, while doing damage control by hosting social events, giving out food to the needy, and holding public Quran recitations.
“We’re not intolerant like the media says. Anyone can come here,” Jaelani said. “In a legal sense, we’re not breaking any laws. We’ve never singled anyone out for their religion. But the concept we’re going for is an Islamic neighbourhood.”
Jaelani continued around the village, checking water pipes. The village has its own water system; well water is pumped into a reservoir, which then flows into each household. Residents only pay a maintenance fee for the service and pay nothing to the city.
Fadhil, a 27-year-old who goes by one name, also moved to Thoyibah to lead a life that met his religious standards.
“It’s in accordance with the prophet’s teachings,” he said. “Most neighbourhoods nowadays don’t align with Indonesian culture. That’s why we gathered here, even though our places of work are far away. Some of us even work in Jakarta.”
Life is peaceful in Thoyibah, at least according to Fadhli. Although the rules sound strict, they are loosely enforced. If, for instance, a man missed a prayer or was caught smoking, he would simply be reprimanded.
“We’re here to remind each other,” Fadhli said. “There are no sanctions.”
Issues that require more intervention are handled by a seven-person body of elders who make judgements according to their religious knowledge. “Whatever the elders say, we follow,” Fadhli said.
While housing options loosely based on Islamic teachings are common in Indonesia, they rarely come with sharia rule.
“Sharia housing usually only offers sharia-based payments, not the whole package of a sharia lifestyle,” Paulus Lusida, secretary general of Real Estate Indonesia (REI), said.
There are currently no laws regulating Muslim-only neighbourhoods, but Lusida worries that this trend may lead to exclusivity and isolationism, thus threatening relations between residents who choose to live in accordance with sharia and those who don’t.
The SETARA Institute recorded 202 violations against freedom of religion in Indonesia in 2018. The Indonesian Survey Institute noted no improvement in religious freedom under President Joko Widodo, who just started his second term.
Muslim-only communities appear to be an increasing demand, said Rosyid Aziz, head of the Sharia Property Development (DPS) community. The community oversees the development of 50,000 housing units across Indonesia.
“We have about 1,300 people in the Sharia Property Development community, with a total of 300-500 projects across a range of regencies and cities,” Aziz said.
Aziz also revealed that the Sharia-based payment system has piqued the interest of non-Muslims. Every now and then, they get a couple applications from non-Muslims, who are rejected without question.
“Pretty soon they’ll be building another sharia neighbourhood next door,” Jaelani said. “It looks like we’re pioneers."
Elisabeth Glory Victory contributed to this report.
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This article originally appeared on VICE ID.