Indonesia's Aceh Passes Stoning Bill

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Ed Wray / AP

Acehnese men and women enter a mosque on Dec. 2, 2006

Many of the people who survived the devastating 2004 tsunami that deluged the Indonesian province of Aceh found grim solace in the aftermath of the killer wave. The wall of water and earthquake extinguished 130,000 lives there, but in its wake came a surprising resolution to a simmering separatist movement that had pitted local rebels against the government in Jakarta for three decades.

Now residents are grappling with new limits on their personal lives. On Sept. 14, Aceh's legislative council used the semiautonomy granted by a post-tsunami peace agreement to vote unanimously for a raft of Shari'a-inspired punishments, including possible death by stoning for adultery and whipping for homosexual activity. People caught having premarital sex could be subjected to 100 public lashes. The new laws are the strictest in the nation. Although Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim, most of the country's citizens are committed to a far more moderate form of the faith.

Aceh has long been one of Indonesia's most conservative regions. But in recent months, the province had actually been leaning against the extreme Islamist currents that for centuries have characterized this northwestern end of the island of Sumatra. In April's parliamentary elections, Acehnese booted out hard-line legislators in favor of politicians from the more moderate Aceh Party. The new political leaders take office in October, and their predecessors are using their last days in power to push through a variety of orthodox Muslim ordinances. Previous laws passed by the local parliament require women to wear headscarves and outlaw gambling and the consumption of alcohol. Gambling, in particular, has been punished on numerous occasions in Aceh by public caning.

Aceh is believed to be the first place in Indonesia where Islam took root, imported by traders from the Middle East. By the 15th century, the Sultan of Aceh had converted to the faith and the sultanate soon became one of the most powerful in Southeast Asia, commanding a vast spice- and mineral-trading empire. While much of Indonesian Islam is syncretic, mixing traditional local beliefs with the imported faith, Aceh's belief system is generally far closer to the orthodox form practiced in Saudi Arabia, where the law of the land is based on Shari'a.

Nevertheless, some Acehnese have rallied against the harsh bylaws voted in on Monday, saying that if nothing else, they violate Indonesia's constitution and several international human-rights frameworks to which the country has acceded. Indeed, Aceh's governor, Irwandi Yusuf, a former insurgency leader, has in the past expressed discomfort with the wave of Islamic laws being passed in the province. But in a region that is so firmly committed to conservative Islam, outspoken criticism of Shari'a-based criminal law is politically risky. To wit: even though several moderate legislators in the Aceh parliament declined to endorse the bylaws, none actually dared to vote against them.