The heavy hand of religious police in Aceh

Since 2001, far-flung Indonesian province has enforced its version of Islamic law, using floggings to punish offenders.

An Islamic law official whips a man convicted of gambling with a rattan cane inside a mosque compound [AP]

Banda Aceh, Indonesia A small group of punk and hardcore rockers recently organised a guerrilla gig in an empty lot behind a coffee shop in the capital of Aceh province.

The show was not advertised. None of the neighbours were notified; neither was the owner of the coffee shop.

One of the organisers was Bolong, 28, a skinny youth sporting a black T-shirt, tight black jeans, and scuffed brown Doc Martens. As he and his friends unloaded a truck full of guitars and amps, he explained the philosophy of the event.

“Our aim is to fight capitalism,” he said. “It’s all about rebellion.”

There has been plenty to rebel against in Aceh.

They burned all our clothes and shaved our hair... They said our appearance would give a bad influence to the next generation.

by - Bolong, punk band leader

Since 2001, the far-flung province of 4.7 million has enforced its version of Islamic law, which forbids alcohol, punishes premarital romance, and has little tolerance for the anti-establishment posturing of its tiny punk-rock community.

Back in December 2011, religious police broke up a rock concert in Banda Aceh and took about 30 punk-rockers into custody. Bolong was among them.

After three days at a police lock-up, he said the group was taken to a police training facility, where they were imprisoned for a week and forced to take part in military-style drills.

To provide extra “motivation”, police fired guns over their heads.

“We were treated like animals,” said Bolong, who asked that his real name not be used, for fear of repercussions. “They burned all our clothes and shaved our hair … They said our appearance would have a bad influence on the next generation.”

Since the crackdown, Aceh’s punks have dialled down their appearance.

“In the past we could see people with mohawks and piercings and chains,” said Zuliran Fauzi, 23, who goes by the nickname “Bunda” and heads his own band, The Punk Terigu.

But now, he said, “we want to make it a little bit polite”.

Public floggings

In recent months, Aceh’s Islamic laws have tightened.

In September, the local legislature passed a new bylaw, or qanun jinayat, imposing harsher penalties on a longer list of “crimes”.

Offences not previously regulated include adultery and same-sex sexual relations, both of which are punishable by public floggings with a thin rattan cane, carried out by a medieval-looking hooded figure to the jeers of onlookers.

The penalties for homosexuality are especially harsh. Gay sex, which is not illegal elsewhere in Indonesia, is now punishable by 100 lashes or 100 months in jail. Officials can also demand 1,000 grams of gold – about $38,500 – if they catch gay or lesbian couples in the act.

The new bylaw is a watered-down version of a controversial law passed by Aceh’s legislature in 2009, which mandated stoning to death as a punishment for adultery.

After the resulting international outrage, the stoning provision was dropped from the new bylaw, which now awaits approval by Indonesia’s Minister of Home Affairs. A decision is expected by September 2015.

In the meantime, human rights groups are calling for an end to caning, a practise they say violates not only the Indonesian constitution, but also a raft of international treaties signed by Indonesia.

“Victims of caning experience pain, fear, and humiliation, and caning can cause long-term or permanent injuries,” said Josef Benedict, an Indonesia researcher with Amnesty International. In some cases, he said, such punishments “may amount to torture”.

Flogging ‘education’

Supporters of the law say the point of flogging is not pain, but education.

The purpose of giving canings is to give a warning to the people who break the law.

by - Faisal Ali, Aceh Ulama Assembly

“The purpose of giving canings is to give a warning to the people who break the law,” said Faisal Ali, secretary of the Aceh Assembly, a body of Islamic scholars, that helped formulate the new bylaw.

“This is only a short-term punishment, unlike regular punishments, putting people in jail for months or years.”

According to Amnesty, at least 41 people have been caned so far this year in Aceh for offences including gambling, drinking, and adultery.

In 2001, the central government in Jakarta allowed Aceh to adopt Islamic law in an attempt to quell a decades-long separatist conflict waged by the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM.

Benedict said the move was seen as “part of a calculated political strategy to bolster support for the government among the Acehnese people and to weaken support for secular GAM”.

Since then, the religious edicts have been enforced by green-clad religious police, who drive about town ordering shops to close for Friday prayers and pulling women over for violations of a strict dress code.

Headscarves are mandatory; tight pants, or anything showing the shape of the body, are banned. Young unmarried couples are also banned from unaccompanied public meetings, a transgression known as khalwat.

While most of Aceh’s residents are devout Muslims, not all agree with the government’s strict interpretation of Quranic laws.

“I believe my holy book teaches about love, not about that kind of punishment,” said Rosnida Sari, a lecturer at the Islamic Institute in Banda Aceh, and part of a network of local activists petitioning Jakarta to amend the bylaw.

Vigilante justice

Women’s rights activists said the laws have also been abused by local zealots and vigilantes. In a tragic case in 2012, religious police seized a 16-year-old schoolgirl at a concert in the eastern town of Langsa and accused her of being a prostitute.

After the girl was named in the local press, she hanged herself.

In May, a group of eight men broke into a house in Langsa, where they caught a 25-year-old woman with a married man. Accusing them of adultery, the vigilantes beat up the man and gang-raped the woman, before dousing the couple in raw sewage.

Officials then announced that despite her traumatic ordeal, the woman would be flogged for adultery.

Ruwaida, of Solidaritas Perembuan Aceh, a Banda Aceh-based women’s rights group, said the introduction of Islamic law had “changed the perception of the men here, who think that a woman who is not properly dressed should be punished, even though they are not the authority to do that”.

She added: “They claim to uphold the Islamic law, and then they can do whatever they want.”

Faisal Ali, the Islamic scholar, said there were tough punishments for those who abuse religious laws but defended the religious controls over citizens’ private lives.

“In Islam, we have to take care of every brother and sister,” he said.

He added same-sex relationships were “forbidden in Islam”.

Aceh’s punk rockers remain unconvinced. While many have toned down their appearance, the rebellious spirit still burns brightly. About 100 young people turned out to see Bolong and his friends play their gig, banging away enthusiastically while some 20 youths jumped about to the music, sparks from their cigarettes flying.

One of the few female attendees was Enda, 19, neatly dressed in black headscarf and a red T-shirt with a message: “Destroy Fascism” – somewhat at odds with her gentle demeanour.

Asked about her headscarf, Enda said for her there was no incompatibility between being a devout Muslim and a hardcore punk fan.

“Everyone has the right to have their own beliefs,” she said during a break between sets, as the muezzin began the evening call to prayer from a nearby mosque. “We don’t stand aside from Islam because our music comes from our soul.”

Source: Al Jazeera