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Crackdown on punks in Indonesia

Some who see punks as a welcome challenge to the conservative form of Islamic law in Aceh worry that the crackdown is working too well.

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Sharia in Aceh

Aceh is the only province in Indonesia governed by Islamic law, or sharia, a concession it was first granted by Jakarta in 2001, in a central government effort to end a seperatist war.

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Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims generally are happy to have the strictness of their adherence to their faith to be left up to personal choice, rather than government enforcement, but the people of Aceh are among the most strict in their approach to Islam in the country. Resident of the province proudly refer to their home as “the veranda of Mecca."

The province sits at the northern tip of Sumatra and guards the roads to the Strait of Malacca, through which trade between the Arab world and the Far East has passed for centuries. Islam set down some of its earliest Indonesia roots here, and with its greater proximity to Saudi Arabia, practice of the faith here has always had more of a Saudi flavor.

A special sharia police force sees that bylaws pertaining to an Islamic lifestyle are not violated, while an Islamic court doles out sentences that include public canings. Some say both institutions have become more powerful since Aceh achieved autonomy as part of a peace agreement signed in 2005.

Others say certain officials have adopted sharia law as a way of gaining popularity.

In the run up to local elections on April 9, Banda Aceh Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal oversaw a drive by the sharia police to crack down on vice, which includes drinking and fraternizing.

On April 20, the sharia police in a city southeast of Banda Aceh publicly caned a homeless punk couple caught having pre-marital sex in public. They were among 11 others, mostly gamblers, punished for immoral behavior.

More often, however, these vice squads crack down on more benign activities, such as women caught wearing pants (a bylaw in some areas prohibits this form of dress.)

“That makes the space for youth expression very secretive, very limited,” says Idria.

The arrests in December were unusual for their scale and for the fact that many of the punks came from other cities in Indonesia. Typical crackdowns include raids on cafes and parks, where punks often gather to play music. Hasan says the reason for December’s arrests was in part because of the permit, but also because the youths were up to no good.

“They brought hard liquor and marijuana,” he says.

Idria believes that is not an adequate explanation for why punks have been targeted, particularly since none of them were formally charged with a crime or prosecuted.

“It all started from stories that punk is a lifestyle from the West, that it’s anti-Islam and will damage Aceh,” he says.

Punks are still Muslims

The lifestyle may run counter to the government’s interpretation of sharia, says Idria, whose father is an Islamic leader, but punks in Aceh are still Muslims.

Prasdana says some punks do steal and vandalize, giving others a bad name. Among his group, however, the bond is like a brotherhood. “If we only have one cigarette, we share it between everyone,” he says.

Since the pre-election sweep in April many of the punks have been lying low, “This is just the beginning," says Idira. "We have to get involved and discuss these things. The punks have started to disappear.”

Still, Idria says the crackdown may have strengthened their resolve in the long run.

“Our style has changed, but it’s difficult to change our convictions,” says Prasdana.

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