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Death by stoning in Indonesia

Analysis: Forget what you've heard about "creeping fundamentalism." It's not true.

A group of female activists gather outside local parliament to demand the parliament reject the controversial new sharia law "qanun jinayat" in Banda Aceh, Sept. 14, 2009. Under the new law, Muslims who commit adultery in Indonesia's northern Aceh province may be stoned to death. (Tarmizy Harva/Reuters)

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.