In Indonesia’s conservative province of Aceh, a long-awaited promise to stop caning criminals in public places lasted only a few months. In April, the governor of the province, Irwandi Yusuf, had pledged that punishments would be held inside prisons instead of in front of mosques, as a response to the international criticism to this practice.
However, only one caning was carried out away from the eyes of the large crowds that used to witness the events and take photos of the punishment. In July, Yusuf was arrested for corruption and, with him, the promise also fell. Public caning resumed a few days later, on July 13, when two men accused of having gay sex received 87 lashes outside the Baiturrahim Mosque in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Another nine people were caned for spending time together in a private space without being married, while one woman was flogged for selling alcohol, and three other men for consuming it.
Aceh is not the only conservative province in Indonesia, but it is the only place where Sharia or Islamic law has been implemented. This development stemmed from the reforms that took place in the country after the era of President Suharto, when more power was granted to local governments to approve some regulations.
Aceh, in addition, is a special region, a condition granted in order to end the armed separatist conflict that raged in the region for almost 30 years, starting in 1976. When the tsunami struck in 2004, the province was in a dire situation. The need for help to rebuild the area led to a peace agreement in 2005.
In Aceh, movies and karaoke are banned. Some posters on the streets remind young people that they cannot spend time together alone. In early September, authorities in an Aceh district also banned men and women from dining together unless they were married or shared a family relationship, arguing that this would help women be “more well behaved.”
Hardline Islamic leaders in Indonesia, inspired by what is allowed in Aceh, are pushing to implement similar regulations in other parts of the country. In Indonesia around 88 percent of the population declares themselves moderate Muslim, although more and more women are modestly dressed and the LGBT community feels increasingly threatened. The persecution of religious minorities in Indonesia has also been keenly felt in recent years. In 2017, the Christian governor of Jakarta was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam.
Many politicians and academics in Aceh have spoken in defense of the strict implementation of Sharia in the province. They have pointed to the tsunami on many occasions, arguing that it arrived as “a punishment from God” due the lack of faith. In the same vein, many have warned that a second and bigger disaster will come if the Acehnese do not follow Sharia.
Some small civic organizations, such as the Society Network for Islamic Law Care, have been urging the government to review Islamic laws since 2009. Academic Fuad Mardhotillah, who is on the board of advisers for that organization, argues that public punishments are the result of a “misinterpretation of Islam.”
In April, Yusuf promised that canings would be carried out inside prisons, where adults can still witness the punishment but recording wouldn’t be allowed. But according to local photographer Hotli Simanjuntak, who documents canings for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), four collective punishments have been carried out to date.
Moch Nur Ichwan, senior lecturer and vice director of the School of Graduate Studies of Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, explained that the gubernatorial regulation on meting out caning punishments at prison was not effective for two reasons.
First, he said, “legally [the regulation] has not yet been followed with implementation guidance and technical guidance.” On the other hand, politically, the regulation “has been considered by many, if not most, local legislators, regents, mayors, and ulamas, as contradicting Sharia itself.” Ichwan argued that this opposition “is political and not purely religious,” but this reflects the conservative views of most politicians in Aceh.
Yusuf gained his position based on a commitment to develop infrastructure and ensure that residents of the province can benefit from their natural resources, which include some of the largest oil reserves in Indonesia. After being re-elected at the beginning of 2017, he received a lot of pressure from the central government to maintain investment. The tension increased in May of the same year, when for the first time two men were publicly caned for having gay sex.
Yusuf’s promise to conduct future canings in prison provoked the wrath of some religious figures. Critics consider it important to keep such punishment in the eyes of the people, as it serves as an cautionary tale. The most visible hardline Islamist group in Indonesia, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), organized protests in front of the government office asking the governor “not to ruin Sharia in Aceh.”
Ichwan explains the logic of Sharia implementation in Aceh is that “it is to be implemented totally but in a gradual way.” Therefore, Sharia moves toward totality, and not the other way around. The same month of Yusuf’s announcement, the provincial government also asked his office to research beheading as a punishment for murder, even though activists believe this is not going to happen.
“Moving the canings to prison could actually be the first step to end this practice, if it is accompanied with proper democratization and dominance of progressive Islamic thought,” Ichwan said. “But, because ending the canings should start with revising the qanuns [laws of Muslim sovereigns], it is far from not an easy task in the near or long term.”
Marzi Afriko, a researcher and analyst of Islamic politics and governance, shares the same idea as Ichwan. He argues that the announcement of Yusuf’s decree has caused a major change in the discourse of some ulemas and intellectuals. For example, a few of them expressed to the press the negative impact of public punishments among society.
For Afriko, “it could be easy to change the canings for a more rational punishment if the leader wants and does not seek to politicize the Sharia because of his personal or group political interest.” But he says, for now, he does not see “that kind of leadership in Aceh.”
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia