OPINION: Aceh's latest sharia victim an insult to Indonesian Muslims

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - An American-made film insulting Islam is expected to attract more protests at home and abroad. But anyone intending to join such protests would miss a much graver insult to themselves, both as Indonesians and Muslims. This is the news of the death of a 16-year-old girl, identified only as PE, in Langsa regency, Aceh. She was discovered hanging in her room on Sept. 6. So far, her death has been deemed a case of suicide.

If Islam stands for compassion and reason, as many of us understand it, then what is compassionate and what is reasonable about the moral police, and the public humiliation of a teenager enjoying a concert?

The girl reportedly left a letter to her father, insisting that she had never "sold herself", as alleged by the province's so-called morality police. She had been apprehended and harangued in public by the Sharia police for allegedly engaging in prostitution during a concert. Can Indonesian Muslims accept the consequences of this moral policing, which its advocates say is a religious necessity?

We must share the blame for the humiliation and grief felt by PE, and those of many other Acehnese men and women who have become victims of the province's sharia laws - supposedly a political exchange first offered under the government of late president Abdurrahman Wahid to help silence calls for an independent Aceh. We must share the blame for having dismissed the Acehnese people's humiliation as a mere excess of that political exchange, which has allowed them the greatest degree of autonomy among all our provinces. In other words - "It serves you right, Acehnese". Should Indonesians continue in this attitude, in the light of this teenager's death?

The spotlight must shift from Langsa and Aceh to the whole of Indonesia - and to Jakarta and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself. In response to protests that more than 150 bylaws violate the constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination against minorities, his ministers, most notably Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi, have asserted that all bylaws inspired by religion and morality across the provinces, are in line with the authority granted under regional autonomy.

Indeed, many are official "public order bylaws", not "sharia" bylaws, which are only allowed under the Aceh Governance Law. So, even without the morality police, public order officials are mandated to execute such policies, which among other things regulate "Muslim" clothing for men and women in public schools and government offices.

Last December, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) identified 154 bylaws as being discriminatory toward minorities, including women.

The death of PE, said commissioner Andy Yentriyani on Thursday, "has created a good opportunity for the leaders of Aceh and the rest of Indonesia to rethink the use of moralistic laws". The commission is appealing to all Indonesians as a last-resort tactic, as reviewing bylaws are not included in the mandate of the Constitutional Court.

Political observers do not consider such bylaws an urgent issue; in recent local elections, free education and free healthcare services have become the more trendy political commodities to attract votes rather than earlier pledges to make the provinces and regents more clean in a moralistic sense. So, perhaps these moralistic bylaws are considered just a phase in Indonesia's long "transition".

But this depends on the constituency, says one researcher; in local elections, moralistic policies may still be vote winners. And all these bylaws remain effective. The government only once raised an objection against an Aceh bylaw that would have allowed the stoning to death of adulterers, as that would have been catastrophic for Indonesia's image to overseas' investors.

The death of PE is more a testimony than an insult; a testimony to Indonesians' lack of care about affairs considered to be political evils, in this case, the Acehnese getting what they asked for. It is also a testimony to the ignorant empathy that in the reform era, regions should now be entitled to have moralistic codes for the good of their societies (an easy vote getter). With an attitude like this, we will see few protests against such rules as, for instance, mandatory Koran-reading skills for gubernatorial candidates, aspiring students or couples registering for a marriage license.

Leaders, including the President, need to be seen to condone such bylaws to be able to woo the "Islamic vote". Never mind the protests that remind us that such policies violate the Constitution - especially considering that the victims come from dispensable minority groups, such as the Ahmadiyah and young women.

So, it is left to the public to decide what we want. Indonesia is not a fully "secular" state, while some would prefer a more "religious" state. But, while Indonesians are not limited to Muslims, surveys have found, unsurprisingly, that minorities don't say much when it comes, for instance, to school rules imposing "Muslim" wear on all students, even if some of them are Christian.

As in the case of Aceh, young people and the impoverished are easy targets for the morality police; think back to the shaving of some 60 punks following a concert. With few protests, Gamawan has been able to say that most bylaws regulating morality and behaviour do not cause trouble as they only apply to Muslims.

Activists are urging the review and reform of sharia in Aceh. However, the death of 16-year-old PE should be the last warning of the price of ignorance and of the excess of policies across Indonesia, which justify the meddling by state authorities into what should remain private affairs.

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