Death by stoning in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province, has this month been compared to Somalia, Nigeria and even Iraq. So it goes when lawmakers decide that death by stoning is an appropriate punishment for adultery.

The fact is the law goes much further than that even. It also outlaws homosexuality and refuses to consider marital rape a crime. But despite this, Aceh’s controversial new law is not an example of “creeping fundamentalism” as the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets have suggested.

One must only walk through the streets of Aceh’s capital city, Banda Aceh, to find out. These days women walk freely without their headscarves, girls and boys mingle at coffee shops and the so-called “Sharia Police” make up only a tiny fraction of the city’s police force — and even then they are reluctant to enforce the province’s smattering of religious-based by-laws.

“I don’t think there is any chance of this law being enforced anytime soon,” said Sidney Jones, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

Aceh is the country’s most devout region, the site where an Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 130,000 people in 2004 and where, in 2005, a 30-year old civil war came to a peaceful, though tenuous, conclusion. As part of the European-brokered peace deal, Aceh was given a degree of autonomy from Jakarta. That autonomy was on display spectacularly earlier this month when outgoing provincial lawmakers passed the so-called “stoning law,” requiring harsh penalties for what they called “ethical crimes.” This would include caning for premarital sex and homosexuality.

Residents of Banda Aceh cringed.

“This stoning bill only promotes violence in Islam, which is not what Islam is teaching us,” said Fitri, a 25-year old university student in Banda Aceh who also said she didn’t expect the law to be enforced, or even remain on the books much longer. “Sharia law is implemented in Arab countries, but in Indonesia we have different situations and cultures.”

The lawmakers who passed the law, in fact, were largely voted out during local parliamentary elections last April. The new parliament, populated mostly by ex-freedom fighters who analysts say tend to be more concerned with the region’s economic prosperity and independence from Jakarta than Islamic teachings, is almost certain to repeal the law. Aceh’s acting governor, Mohammad Nazar, even denounced the bill as un-Islamic.

There is a sense, in fact, among some Acehnese analysts, that the passing of the law was not meant to enforce Islamic morals at all, but instead was meant as a political move to destabilize the incoming parliament.

“There is a sense that the outgoing parliament deliberately left a 'time-bomb' for their successors,” Jones said. “The next parliament will be open to criticism either way, damned for being insufficiently supportive of Sharia if they try and roll it back, damned for intolerance and cowardliness if they let it go ahead, even in a modified form.”

If the new parliament doesn’t rescind the law, however, Jakarta will. Andi Mallarangeng, an adviser to the president, said the central government would likely review the law’s legality. Such an action could have interesting repercussions for the country as a whole.

Numerous Sharia-based regulations have been passed by local governments throughout Indonesia and so far, the Home Affairs ministry has not acted, even though the regulations are in clear violation of Indonesian law, which forbids local governments from enacting religious-based legislation.

“In the case of Aceh, the Ministry will almost certainly act — which may bring some of the other regulations around the country into question,” Jones said.

Aceh’s new law isn’t the first time Sharia-based regulations have been passed there. Laws have existed for years requiring women to wear headscarves in public, for instance, and there was a time when women were occasionally, sometimes brutally, punished. But when you walk the streets of its capital these days, numerous women forgo the headscarf, openly flouting the law with little to no consequence. Such religious-based laws have always been followed by a public backlash — both domestically and internationally. It appears this most recent law will befall the same fate. Already national women’s groups have rallied to demand the retraction of the legislation.

The Acehnese themselves are also bewildered.

“Among so many aspects of Sharia Law, I don’t understand why the Aceh parliament prioritized the stoning law, while corruption and social welfare are so much more critical,” said, Jalil, 36, a male consultant working in Banda Aceh.