News of two gay men being publicly whipped in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh has sparked concerns that Indonesia’s long-vaunted “tolerant” Islam is turning fundamentalist. Islam in Indonesia is in a process of change, and a more fundamentalist version of the faith is increasingly prominent. The “Aceh whippings”, however, might be misleading.

Aceh was the first place in the south-east Asian archipelago to receive Islam, and the province is colloquially known as “Mecca’s veranda”. However, until relatively recently, while Acehnese Muslims were devout, they were far from fundamentalist in their outlook.

This more inclusive version of Islam reflected the region’s extensive and varied external influences as well as an older matrilineal heritage. Some Acehnese Muslims, including many ulama (Islamic scholars), however, have always followed the basic precepts of their faith.

As Aceh’s separatist war was at its peak in 2001, the Jakarta government introduced what it called “special autonomy” for Aceh, in the hope of reducing pressure for independence. Part of this package included the introduction of sharia, as a means of splitting more religiously committed Acehnese from the otherwise nationalist Free Aceh Movement.

The introduction of sharia had little initial effect, with many Acehnese women wearing tight clothing and eschewing headscarves. However, with Aceh’s peace agreement in 2005 and subsequent elections, a number of conservative ulama and their supporters were elected to the provincial legislature, thus starting the more formal adoption of sharia.

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“Sharia police” were formed to root out anti-Islamic practices, including gambling, drinking alcohol and sexual misbehaviour. Initially formed to work with regular police, the sharia police, who hold no formal policing powers, have since worked as vigilantes.

The imposition of sharia has, however, remained relatively light. Miscreants are often offered the choice of punishments such as whipping rather than paying a monetary fine. The whippings have an element of humiliation about them, but have mostly not been painful affairs.

More recently, though, the Islamic police have insisted on more proactive policing and more genuinely punitive measures. Thus, acting on a tip-off, vigilante sharia police raided a place where two men were in bed together, for which they have been sentenced to be whipped.

This event obscures two other matters, though. The first is that many Acehnese, including the recently elected governor, Irwandi Yusuf, object to the use of sharia law. The second matter is that more fundamentalist Islam has become generally more assertive elsewhere in Indonesia, not least in Jakarta.

The recent jailing on former Jakarta governor, the Chinese Christian Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, for blasphemy as a result of a comment made during the gubernatorial election campaign was but the most pronounced illustration of this phenomenon. Ahok had responded to a claim by Islamic fundamentalists that a Christian could not rule over Muslims. His response was edited and re-posted, as a result of which there was orchestrated rioting and he was charged.

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Once convicted, the prosecution asked that Ahok not be jailed, illustrating the overtly political nature of the initial charge. The three judges, however, ignored that advice and jailed Ahok for two years. The judges are widely believed to have succumbed from Islamist populist pressure in, effectively, acting beyond Indonesia’s already interpretable law.

The use of fundamentalist Islam for political purposes has been in the background of Indonesian politics since the 1990s, when then-president Suharto began courting Islam as a counter-balance to an increasingly disenchanted army. His former son-in-law and failed presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, was at the lead of the pro-Islamist movement.  

Prabowo is again using a more fundamentalist Islam to promote his political agenda. In his sights is the less than robust presidency of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.   

There is no guarantee that Prabowo will be successful in his bid against Jokowi. But, either way, he and the radical mobs he has so assiduously used will have legitimised fundamentalist Islam as a central factor in the future of Indonesia politics.       

Peter Fray

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