Two men in Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh are slated to stand trial in Islamic court after local residents caught them having sex. If convicted, the men will receive 100 lashes with a cane, in a case that demonstrates rising conservatism in the Muslim-majority country once known as a model of religious pluralism.
A 2014 law criminalized gay sex and sex outside of marriage in the province, which implements sharia, or Islamic law. The two men, ages 20 and 23, would be the first to receive punishment under the law.
“Based on our investigation, testimony of witnesses and evidence, we can prove that they violated Islamic sharia law and we can take them to court,” Marzuki, chief investigator of the Aceh religious police, said on Saturday.
Aceh is the only Indonesian province where sharia is officially on the books alongside other national laws. The region, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, was home to a deadly decades-long insurgency led by a separatist group called the Free Aceh Movement that only ended with a final peace deal in 2005. Before that, in 2001, the central government in Jakarta started granting Aceh special permission to to apply sharia in some cases. After government troops withdrew in 2005, Aceh was granted even broader authority to implement Islamic law.
Now, alcohol is illegal and modest dress for women is required. Law enforcement officers and vigilante residents police neighborhoods to root out immorality. And numerous offenses are punished by public lashing.
Aceh’s conservatism was once an anomaly in Muslim-majority Indonesia
Aceh’s conservatism was once an anomaly in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which has long been viewed as an example of tolerance and pluralism among Muslim nations. Its secular state guarantees freedom of religion, permitting six national religions (though it does not recognize atheism), and Indonesian Muslims are known for being both personally observant and accepting of the non-observance of those around them.
Indonesia is home to Islam Nusantara, or “East Indies Islam,” a progressive Islamic movement with centuries of history. It also boasts the largest independent Islamic organization in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), founded in 1926, many of whose members adhere to a uniquely Indonesian form of progressive Islam. In 2016, in response to the theological challenge of the Islamic State, NU began to proactively issue ideological rebuttals to the extremist group’s propaganda.
But in the past 15 years, the archipelago has seen a rise in religious fundamentalism. After decades of dictatorship, Indonesia began a transition to democracy in 1998 following the resignation of Suharto, who had served as president for more than 30 years. A wide variety of political parties, including Islamist parties, flourished along with expanding political freedoms. The expansion of choice in the political sphere coincided with an Islamic revival as more conservative Indonesian Muslims increasingly looked to the Arab world as a more authentic expression of Islam. The Aceh model, which combines Islamic law with the national legal code, has proven popular, at least among some, and now other provinces in Indonesia have looked to pass similar regulations. To date, more than 440 ordinances based on Islamic precepts have been adopted around the country. In late 2016, accusations of blasphemy against Jakarta’s first Christian governor sparked new fears of growing intolerance. Some fear that secularism and liberalism are being eroded.
The arrest of the two men has sparked concern from human rights groups.