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Does Aceh want Shariah?

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21 September 2010 09:00

Aaron Connelly is a Fulbright scholar and visiting fellow at CSIS, Jakarta. He visited Banda Aceh for The Interpreter; earlier posts here, here, here, here and here.

Last September the Aceh Provincial Legislature, sitting in a lame duck session, shocked the world, its compatriots and its own constituents by passing a draconian bylaw demanding severe punishment for adulterous activity — death by stoning for married perpetrators and 100 lashes of the cane for unmarried perpetrators. The law also stipulated penalties of hundreds of lashes for those convicted of homosexual acts, pedophilia, or rape.

The bylaw's passage took Aceh by surprise. Many of the legislators who voted for the bylaw had just days remaining in their term. Members of Islamic and Islamist parties, they had been voted out en masse five months earlier in favor of the secular former rebels of Partai Aceh. But even these more conservative lame duck legislators were not widely expected to support such a draconian measure.

Longtime analyst of Indonesian politics, Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Global Post later that month that the bylaw was likely an attempt by the lame duck Islamists to out-manoeuvre their parliamentary opponents rather than a serious attempt to enact Sharia law:

There is a sense that the outgoing parliament deliberately left a 'time-bomb' for their successors....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.

One of the former legislators who worked to pass the bylaw, Surya Darma of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), denied in an email exchange earlier this month that there were any ulterior motives behind the bylaw. But Surya also argued that he and his colleagues were primarily interested in the bylaw as a deterrent to what they view as unethical conduct, not driven by an enthusiasm for bloody punishment. Other supporters of the bylaw have noted that its requirement that there be four witnesses to the acts in question mean that stonings, canings and long prison sentences would likely never be handed down to those convicted.

Rather than repeal the bylaw, though, Partai Aceh pretended it didn't exist. Governor Irwandi Yusuf, who is affiliated with Partai Aceh, refused to affix his signature to the bill, and announced that, without his signature, the bylaw remained unratified. Hasbi Abdullah, who became head of the provincial legislature the following month, told me at his office in July that he considered the law to have never come into effect, so an effort to repeal it would be unnecessary.

Sidney Jones says that this is probably a misinterpretation of the lawmaking process laid out in the 2006 Law on the Governing of Aceh, but it was a misinterpretation that Jakarta, the Governor, and the new legislators were more than happy to support in order to avoid difficult questions.

The controversy over the bylaw illustrates well a critical dynamic of Acehnese politics. Support for draconian Shariah measures has never been very high in Aceh, according to foreign analysts who have spent a substantial amount of time there. Symbolic support among the population for Islamic law (which also encompasses a much broader, more benevolent endorsement of ethical conduct than the severe punishments outlined in the bylaw) is, however, common.

That symbolic support allowed conservative politicians to exploit the issue for political gain through shrewd yet mostly insincere parliamentary manoeuvres, and to silence a progressive government with little interest in culture war campaign they believed they would lose — phenomena no more unique to Aceh than they are to Australia.

Photo by Flickr user Ben Beiske, used under a Creative Commons license.

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