Aceh’s Fundamental Clash: Punk Meets Shariah Law
Samantha Michaels & Emily Johnson
Banda Aceh. It’s New Year’s Eve, and a group of young friends have gathered at an outdoor basketball court in Banda Aceh for a late-night jam session. Here, where Sharia law reigns, unmarried men and women are not supposed to congregate, especially late at night, but a few young girls have decided to join in. The friends are dressed in band t-shirts, torn jeans, Converse sneakers, piercings and the occasional mohawk.
Ilham, 21, strums a ukulele.
“Music is our life,” he says as he talks about his favorite band, the Jakarta-based Sexy Pig. “This band says everything about how we feel: the anger, the freedom.”
His friend Taufik listens quietly. His hair is buzzed short, like a soldier, and is just beginning to grow back.
“We’re not breaking Sharia by being punk,” Taufik says, one week after being released from police detention. “It’s just how we dress. We’re not whores, we’re not gay, and we’re not corruptors.”
But that’s not how Banda Aceh’s deputy mayor, Illiza Sa’ aduddin Djamal, sees it. For months Illiza has been organizing police raids to clear out so-called punks in cafes and city parks — an effort that culminated in December when Taufik and 63 other punk music fans were arrested at a concert and detained for more than a week of moral “re-education.” They were never charged with a crime.
“This [punk lifestyle] is a new social disease affecting Banda Aceh,” Illiza told the Jakarta Globe following the arrests. “If it is allowed to continue, the government will have to spend more money to handle them.”
Shariah Don’t Like It
After the punks’ release, Illiza and a team of government officials started meeting to map out a development program for them. “We’re just trying to put them on the right track,” she said, sitting on a couch in her office, wearing a bejeweled headscarf and pink lipstick.
The development program, she said, will include things like job training and music lessons. “I see all the punks as I see my own children and I want them to feel my love for them,” she said, adding that she has met the punks personally. “I understand them.”
Still, when asked if the local music instructors would teach the punks about punk music, their stated raison d’etre, Illiza sounded confused.
“What?” she asked. “What’s punk music?”
When Taufik and the others were arrested in December, they were held for 10 days of forced moral re-education at a police camp. During that time, their heads were shaved and they were dunked in a communal pool for cleansing.
Another punk, 24-year-old Yudi, said the detainees were physically abused by police officers, an allegation that police deny.
“They punched us, they kicked us and they stepped on our hands,” Yudi said, adding that treatment improved on the third day after human rights activists intervened. “It hurt a lot because we didn’t know what we did wrong.”
What set this crackdown apart from previous ones was its size and the fact that most of the people detained came from outside Aceh including Java and other parts of Sumatra where secularism prevails.
Iliza insisted visitors have to abide by Aceh’s rules and norms. “We don’t know about other places, perhaps the freedom is greater, but this is Banda Aceh,” she said.
“The law says every homeless child should be taken care of by the country,” she said. “We can define the punks as homeless because they sleep everywhere and rarely take a bath. As a mother, I would feel very bad if I saw my own child living like that.”
A few minutes later, her phone rang and she asked, “Would you like to talk to my brother?”
Her brother is Aceh Police Chief Iskandar Hasan, the man who helped organize the punk arrests. He does not share his sister’s parental feelings. “They’re annoying, like pests,” he said of the punks.
Many punks in Banda Aceh live on the streets and panhandle, and Yudi conceded that some are involved in drugs, but he says it’s unfair to paint them all with the same brush.
The punks, he said, are like family, supporting each other when nobody else will. Some of them have maintained relationships with their blood relatives and others have lost those ties, but together they are like brothers and sisters.
“We know that [Shariah law] says women and men who aren’t married cannot get together after 9 p.m., so we usually send all the punk women to their homes or to sleep in other friends’ places,” Taufik said. “We always tell them that they have to take care of themselves.”
Rock the Casbah
Across town, a punk is asleep on an Islamic scholar’s couch. The punk, Ramadhan Moeslem Arrasuly, is a slight figure in a shirt that says “I (Heart) Aceh.” He wakes up and gives a sleepy wave as professor Reza Idria smiles and says good morning.
They make an interesting pair: the young scholar with his hair spiked up into the barest hint of a mohawk, and the punk who says his family has strong Islamic roots — very strong.
“Can you believe a descendant of the prophet is a punk?” Reza asks, pointing to Ramadhan with a laugh.
Reza, a professor of Islamic law at the state university here played guitar in a rock band when he was younger. He may be the most uniquely qualified person to weigh in on the government’s clash with the punks.
So are punks fundamentally anti-Islam? The simple answer, he says, is no, but to understand why the question is even being asked, one must look at Aceh’s recent history.
Aceh is the only place in Indonesia under Shariah law, but the province’s interpretation of that law has been a matter of some debate since it was first implemented in 2005 following a peace agreement between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the government. The long-standing conflict in Aceh ended in part because of the devastating tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people in 2004 and prompted calls for a cease-fire.
The first elections in 2006 swept former GAM leader Irwandi Yusuf into the governor’s office, and while he left much of the old cabinet in place, many district head positions went to former rebels. It was an uneasy mix. Shariah law — never part of GAM’s program — has been a constant tug-of-war since then, with Islamist politicians passing harsh laws despite the opposition of the more secular Irwandi.
Here, Reza says, it is important to distinguish between Shariah as it is described in the Quran and Shariah the legal system.
“As a Muslim I have to understand what Shariah is: It is a path to god. But the way it is interpreted here in Aceh is not Shariah at all. This local law, they call it Shariah, you cannot find it in classical texts.”
In other words, Shariah has been politicized. And it is, above all, politically expedient to appear devoutly Muslim. And with the punks widely viewed as a public nuisance, Reza says cracking down on them may have simply been an effort to score points on a winning issue.
A member of the Jakarta-based punk band Citizen Useless, which recorded a song called “It’s Hard to Be a Punk in Aceh” shortly after the arrests, says there is no reason Muslims can’t be punk. Bass player Lizwan says his father is a hajji and also a member of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) but still has no problem with his son’s punk tendencies. In fact, he says, his father has four tattoos and loves Led Zeppelin.
“He told me that [the situation in Aceh] is embarrassing,” Lizwan said. “Islam is about you, your heart and God. After that, it’s up to you.”
We Ban That Boogie Sound
When the punks were released, most of them left Banda Aceh and returned to their hometowns. Illiza said that 13 of them were from the city, and that after a period of rest, they would begin “development programs.”
“We have prepared a psychologist, religious figures and Indonesian soldiers to teach them about nationalism. They’ll help the punks find their interests and figure out how to build their futures on those interests,” Illiza said.
She said the development program will be mandatory for all the punks in Banda Aceh who were detained, who she claimed were between the ages of 11 and 15, even though she has met 24-year-old Yudi and other older punks in the city. When pressed on the discrepancy, she said, “Twenty-four years old is not too old to be a student.”
Now, nearly two months later, Yudi said the personal re-education programs have yet to begin, though the local punk scene is quieter. “Most of the punks have left Banda Aceh, so there aren’t many of them here like it was before,” he said.
He doesn’t know if or when Illiza will actually follow through on her re-education plans, but he is sure of one thing: he will not willingly participate. “I want to stand on my own two feet, without their help,” he said.