When the New Year chimed in parts of Aceh, Indonesia, the calendar rolled over from 2012 to 1413. At least, that is what seemed to happen, in the opinion of many Acehnese and friends. A raft of new laws not only overrode Indonesia's national laws with sharia. They also brought back stoning, whipping and punishments out of the Dark Ages for adultery and the crime of being gay.
The mayor of Lhokseumawe city in Aceh said his government is tightening supervision of "morals and behaviours" in his jurisdiction. Suaidi Yahya marked the start of the year by sending new orders and instructions to government officials and town residents. Women must sit side-saddle on motorcycles to avoid looking like a man. He also backed new laws which supposedly will punish unchaperoned male-female meetings and homosexual acts by flogging with bamboo staves, and adultery by stoning.
Whether these laws will actually be enforced with such barbaric punishments remains to be seen. There is plenty of opposition to them. In the past, the Aceh province governor has refused to sign authorisation for gruesome enforcement. But what is troubling is the continuing silence from the top ranks of government and Muslim authority in Jakarta.
Anyone who thinks this is just grandstanding and political posturing is sadly mistaken. Even before local authorities began moving to tighten Islamic law last week, parts of Banda Aceh had turned to harsh measures.
On Dec 12, the Indonesian media reported that Islamic police had taken 16 people to the beautiful Grand Mosque Baitul Makmur at Meulaboh, the capital city of West Aceh. A large crowd was assembled after noon prayers to watch the 16 whipped with rattan canes until they bled. Islamic authorities claimed the "criminals" were guilty of gambling or of "indecent behaviour," which usually means a male and female without a chaperone.
Evi Narti Zain, who heads an NGO coalition inside Aceh, has taken a strong stance against the laws. She also has exposed the hypocrisy involved. The poor, particularly poor women, are almost always those who are singled out for arrest and possible punishment. Meanwhile, officials and the middle class continue to enjoy alcohol and illicit romance without challenge.
The very existence of such laws is offensive to thinking people in these times. Mayor Suaidi may feel pious with his New Year's proclamations, but the government and others must show his errors. Jakarta activist Ulil Abshar Abdalla, one of millions of right-thinking Muslims, tweeted that, "How to ride a motorbike is not regulated ... by the Koran."
Aceh is a strongly Islamic region of a Muslim-majority nation. But Indonesia is a democratic country. Sharia will certainly be part of the Indonesian social and legal fabric. But the country long ago chose secular rule, where there is no room for religious extremism.
The government from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on down are responsible for instituting sensible rule of law. Mayor Suaidi of Lhokseumawe, like all public servants in Aceh and the rest of Indonesia, must uphold the laws of the country _ not introduce punitive, out-of-step regulations which will cause physical harm to citizens, and terrible harm to the image of Indonesia.