Under Islamic law, or Shariah, the religious police have administered public canings for such things as gambling, prostitution and illicit affairs. But under a new Islamic criminal code that went into effect, the Shariah police will be wielding a new and more potent threat: death by stoning for adulterers.
Most of Indonesia still lives up to its reputation for a moderate, easygoing brand of Islam, and Islamist parties suffered heavy losses in this year’s national elections. But how Aceh went from basic Islamic law to endorsing stoning in a few short years shows how a small, radical minority has successfully pushed its agenda, locally and nationally, by cowing political and religious moderates.
Though extreme, Aceh is not an isolated case. In recent years, as part of a decentralization of power away from the capital, Jakarta, at least 50 local governments have used their new authority to pass Shariah-based regulations regarding conduct and dress, though none have gone as far as Aceh to deal with criminal matters.
Most experts and human rights advocates believe the regulations discriminate against non-Muslim minorities and contravene the country’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. But the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — a moderate former general — has not challenged them. In fact, Mr. Yudhoyono has backed morality-based laws that pleased Muslim conservative allies but angered advocates of human rights.
The president has yet to comment on the stoning provision, leaving it to his aides to quietly criticize it and clearly hoping that the Aceh Parliament will repeal it. Aceh’s governor has said he will refuse to carry out any stonings, and even supporters acknowledge that the punishment will be extremely hard to apply for practical and theological reasons. Nevertheless, because the governor lacks veto power, stoning could remain on the books.
That would be an embarrassment for Mr. Yudhoyono, who has sought to raise Indonesia’s international standing through its status as the world’s third largest democracy and its most populous Muslim nation.
Just before noon prayers one recent Friday — a mandatory session for men — the Shariah police’s all-female brigade hopped onto a Toyota pickup to begin patrols. Dressed in olive uniforms, the officers hewed to the city center, away from the areas worst hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. They urged stragglers to hurry to the nearest mosque and exhorted the recalcitrant to yield to God’s authority.
“Dear followers of Islam, people of Banda Aceh,” blared a loudspeaker on the Toyota, “our city has applied Shariah. It’s almost praying time. Close all shops, stop all business activities. No more buying and selling.”
Aceh has long been know as “Mecca’s veranda,” because Indonesians used to travel here to board ships bound for Islam’s holiest city on their hajj, or pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Aceh’s self-identity, if rooted in Islam, was always somewhat apart from the rest of Indonesia. Local forces fighting for autonomy, whether from Dutch colonizers or Suharto’s three-decade military rule, always demanded the freedom to carry out Shariah.
As Aceh’s provincial Parliament began considering a more comprehensive Islamic criminal code earlier this year, politicians and clerics at first agreed to defer the issue of stoning, which they generally agree is a punishment specified in the Koran for adultery.
But some lawmakers, apparently allied with radical clerics pushed for its inclusion at the last minute, former and current lawmakers said. Afraid of being branded bad Muslims, even lawmakers with reservations endorsed the law, lawmakers said. Six of the seven parties represented in Parliament voted for the law. The holdout — the Democratic Party, which is also President Yudhoyono’s — merely abstained.
“We never openly said that we were opposed to stoning,” said Yusrizal Ibrahim, 49, a Democratic Party member who served as a lawmaker until last month. “Stoning is part of Shariah, and by voting ‘No,’ it would have made it look as though we were against Islam.”
But even the local members’ abstention drew a rebuke from a high-ranking party official in Jakarta. “He told us that if there was no other party opposing it, we should have gone with the flow,” Mr. Ibrahim said. He added he believed that “stoning was against human rights.” But he said he would have never “dared to say so explicitly in Parliament” for fear of being labeled an “infidel.”
Indeed, now that stoning has become part of Shariah here, even religious leaders fear that opposing it would raise doubts among their followers.
“We can’t tell them to follow Shariah, except this part about stoning,” said Faisal Ali, a cleric who is secretary general of Himpunan Ulama Dayah Aceh, an organization representing 672 Islamic schools, and who believed that Aceh was not ready for stoning yet. “If the people feel that we are not supporting Shariah, they would feel that we are not part of them anymore. That would be an even greater loss because then they wouldn’t listen to us anymore.”
People in Aceh’s rural areas were said to be Shariah’s staunchest supporters, though even most people interviewed here in the provincial capital said they backed the stoning of adulterers.
“If people are caught, they should be given a warning the first time,” said Fati Ibrahim, 43, a mother of four who was buying dustpans at a large store here. “But if they’re caught a second or third time, they should be stoned.
“Otherwise, they’ll give Aceh a bad image. They’ll embarrass us outside Aceh, that we’re not practicing Islam as it should be.”
The New York Times (abridged)