Thursday, November 19, 2009

Syariah Bank

I arrived in Jakarta yesterday, flight one of my four flights home. I'm spending the night here because there are no early morning flights out of Banda Aceh. My Canadian/Indonesian friend (mentioned in earlier posts) insisted on making me a reservation at the hotel that is part of the corporation that his brother used to work for. Quite a good example of a part of Indonesian culture, once you make friends, they always know someone who can get you or sell you what you need and are happy to help. So not only did he make me a reservation at this fancy hotel, and get me his rate so I'm paying about 1/4 of the price, he also had his brother pick me up from the airport. Given how far outside the city the airport is, and how much traffic there was, it was a big favor. In the car on the hour and a half drive to the hotel, I first made pleasant conversation. Asking about his family, how his retirement was going, if it's always rainy in Jakarta, basically New England-esque pleasantries.  But then my curious streak kicked in. He mentioned that he had never been to Aceh although he had lived in Indonesia all his life.  I asked what people in Jakarta thought of Syariah (Sharia) law.

Granted it was a bit of a non-sequitur. He said oh yes yes we have them here too. Confused I asked again, and soon realized he meant Syariah Bank, Islamic banking. This is actually a good example of how pervasive religion is in all sectors here. Similarly to the United States where you can invest in mutual funds that adhere to Christian values, Syariah Banks are described to be more community focused, allowing greater participation and with a greater focus on the common good.  When I explained I meant Syariah law, he said "Oh, we don't like that".

The explanations I've heard about the reasons for Syariah law in Aceh province are quite varied, depending on who you ask. Aceh gained a good deal of autonomy after the 2005 MOU between GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and the Government of Indonesia. Some people say that Syariah law is Aceh's attempt to distinguish itself from the national government. That the motivations are more political than religious. This comes from non-Acehnese and international people I've met.  On the other hand, I've met Acehnese who say that Syariah was forced on Aceh by Jakarta, something like a pacifier. Aceh asked the central government for support, and Jakarta sent along Syariah to quiet them down. Check out the link to a New York Times article to the right if you'd like to read an article from the first perspective.

Day to day, I'm not the person to speak on what Syariah means, especially to women. It only applies to Muslims, and after the influx of ex-pats after the tsunami people are generally very tolerant of westerners, although dressing conservatively and being aware of customs helps.  Generally speaking women cover their heads, but young women often wear tight trendy clothes, but always with legs and at least 1/2 of arms covered. There is a Syariah police, I never met them, but they can reprimand, fine and even imprison people for not following the religious laws. But given that outward expression of those laws can only be seen on women's bodies (there is no dress code for men), it stands to reason that they will be the ones punished, except for those eating or not attending mosque on Fridays.

Then comes the bigger question. The Syariah law here is expanding. Several people have told me that it will never be enforced. But having a law on the books that says a woman must be stoned to death if she is convicted of adultery doesn't bode well. The New York Times article describes members of parliament who disagreed with the law, but didn't vote against it for fear of being called infidels. Regardless of whether these laws are being implemented to force the population to follow the word of the Koran or to cement political power with the religious conservatives, some day a woman will be caught in a very public case of adultery, it's bound to happen. Given that no one spoke up when the law was passed, who will speak up as the preparations for a public stoning begin?

 "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing." - Edward Burke

And in case you were wondering, no, men don't get stoned for adultery.

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