What happens when Indonesia’s secular constitution meets its Islamic by-laws?Legal confusion and leadership paralysis seems to be the usual outcome, providing encouragement to people who want to make a point about local autonomy by acting out their religious fanaticism.
That’s what’s happened this week with the latest example of sharia law gone mad in Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, the most rigidly orthodox region of the archipelago. Bus, a 36-year-old teacher, was having a romantic moment with his lover, Yus, a 28-year-old housewife, when all hell broke loose. You see, they were suspected of committing adultery, which some people in Aceh think worthy of death by stoning.
Once upon a time in a different world (at least the one I grew up in) the words “death by stoning” conjured up sketches from textbooks about ancient or medieval history. Now I must accept it as a sign of our times, at least in places like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Iran or Somalia. It hasn’t happened in Indonesia yet, but it seems there are plenty of people in Aceh who’d love nothing more than to line up a few adulterers, perhaps bury them up to their shoulders, and pelt them with rocks until they die.
It didn’t quite go that far on Wednesday night in Aceh, but it came very close. An angry mob descended on Yus’s home and dragged her and Bus out onto the street. Next they paraded them naked through the village. Then they tied them to a post and beat the crap out of them, stopping only when the police arrived. Now the alleged adulterers face nine lashes in public for their “crime”, a sharia police officer said, even though no such punishment exists under Acehnese or Indonesian law.
Last year the outgoing parliament in Aceh passed a bill which provides for the stoning to death of adulterers and the whipping of homosexuals. The governor hasn’t signed the bill into law, but it’s still on the books as an act of the provincial parliament. Aceh’s sharia laws go back to 2001, and dozens of people have been caned for various offences. But some people including members of the religious police now seem to think that public lashings and stonings are allowed too.
Every time something like this happens in Aceh there is outrage in Jakarta. An official at the justice and human rights ministry called it a “barbarous crime and obviously against our rule of law”, while National human rights commission chairman Ifdhal Kasim warned that unless something was done to confirm the supremacy of the secular constitution, such behaviour could sprout up in other parts of the country. He said it was time President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stood up for the constitution.
Fat chance of that, unfortunately. Yudhoyono is known as a dithering fence-sitter who would rather keep his hands firmly planted under his fat behind than lift a finger against the Islamic hot-heads who trample the country’s secular values at every opportunity. That’s the way it seems to me anyway. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the mild-mannered general knows that any political pressure from Jakarta will only fuel calls for more extreme sharia laws in fiercely independent Aceh.
The sad thing for moderate Acehnese – no doubt the majority of people in that beautiful and proud province – is that the conservative government that passed the stoning law did so in its last days in office, after it had been trounced at the ballot box.