By Sadanand Dhume
From the Indonesian province of Aceh—epicenter of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami five years ago that killed 230,000 people—comes fresh evidence that in the Muslim world, the most common disasters tend to be man-made. On Monday, the provincial parliament stiffened its interpretation of Shariah law by introducing the classical Islamic penalty of stoning to death for adultery. Premarital sex and homosexuality drew a lighter rebuke; for them, the pious lawmakers recommend 100 strokes of a rattan cane.
The news from Aceh, the recipient of billions of dollars in international aid, challenges two widely held beliefs: First, that Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is somehow immune to the blend of puritanical piety and Islamist politics that over the past 35-odd years has disfigured Muslim communities from Morocco to Mindanao. Second, that moderate Muslims—those who interpret their faith in personal rather than political terms—have the will and the intellectual firepower to beat back a well-organized and motivated Islamist minority.
Even in a country that’s 88% Muslim, Aceh, known as “Mecca’s verandah” for its historic role as a staging point for hajj pilgrims, stands out. Politically, the area was an independent kingdom for much of its history and today enjoys an unusual degree of autonomy from Jakarta. Religiously it’s distinct, too. In the 17th century, the then independent sultanate came under the sway of Nuruddin ar-Raniri, a zealous scholar and book burner from India, who gave the local brand of Islam a dour cast. In the 1950s, Aceh was a center of the Darul Islam rebellion against the central government. From the mid-1970s onward the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, blended economic grievances with a sense of separateness based partly on a deeper connection to Islam and lead an insurgency against Jakarta.
Since 1999, the Indonesian government has attempted to blunt pro-independence sentiment by allowing the Acehnese to implement Shariah law. But it was only with the signing of a peace agreement between GAM rebels and Jakarta four years ago that Acehnese Islamism came into its own. Antivice squads began rounding up bareheaded women and unmarried sweethearts. Clerics mandated public flogging for sipping a beer or failing to down a shop’s shutters for Ramadan prayers. Would-be canoodlers quickly found the province’s once-popular beaches off limits. Stoning adulterers is only the next logical step.
Those who believe that the rest of Indonesia cannot go the way of Aceh tend to highlight the historical and cultural differences between the Acehnese and the country’s dominant linguistic group, the 90-million strong Javanese. Indonesia is shielded by a 1,000-year Hindu-Buddhist past, a nonsectarian constitution and a largely moderate population. But Aceh, for all the distinctiveness of its past, also mirrors a broad nationwide shift toward orthodox piety and acceptance of the medieval norms enshrined in Shariah.
Across the archipelago local governments have begun to mandate dress codes for women. In some parts of the country citizens can’t obtain a marriage license or admission to a state school without proving that they can read the Koran. Last year, the Muslim Brotherhood knock-off, the Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, spearheaded a Shariah-inspired “antipornography” bill that encourages vigilantism and criminalizes aspects of non-Muslim cultures. Mobs have attacked mosques belonging to the “heretical” Ahmadiyya Muslim community and “illegal” house churches.
To be sure, the Islamist effort has not gone unopposed. Groups such as the Liberal Islamic Network, the path-breaking Libforall Foundation helmed by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, and assorted women’s groups have pushed back. Yet while their efforts are worth lauding, they also suffer from a fatal flaw. Extremists and moderates are free to quibble over the interpretation of Koranic verses and the life of the prophet Muhammad, but any public criticism of Islam itself is out of bounds.
The Spaniard who supports contraception and gay rights can flatly declare that he doesn’t care what the Bible says or what the Pope thinks. An Indonesian who says the same about the Koran and the prophet Muhammad invites charges of “Islamophobia” and threats of violence. Until this changes and Indonesian secularists begin to enjoy the same freedom to criticize religion as their counterparts in the United States, India or South Korea, they will continue to fight with one hand tied behind their back.
Because of the province’s unique history, Indonesia watchers often dismiss Aceh as peripheral to the larger debate about the country’s struggle with Islamism. The opposite is true. Aceh’s swift descent toward barbarism is proof that making concessions to Islamists whets rather than sates their appetite. More broadly, the difficulty Acehnese face in speaking out against laws made in the name of Islam underscores the challenge of defending human rights against a backdrop of rising piety.
Unless Indonesians can learn to criticize faith in purely secular terms—to treat allegedly divine revelation and its clerical interpreters with skepticism rather than automatic deference—they may soon discover that their westernmost province is merely a few steps ahead of the rest of the country along the same slippery slope toward Shariah.
Mr. Dhume is a Washington, D.C. based writer and the author of “My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).