INDONESIA: Tsunami: Islamist religious opportunism?

John Heelan writes:The following report (1/21/05) was sent by Ana Carbajosa, El Pais Special Correspondent in Banda Aceh [my translation] : "It was a warning from Allah.  Now we have to turn to the sharia," says an Indonesian cleric.  A myriad of Islamist groups has descended on Banda Aceh, the capital of theI ndonesian province, to be at the side of their Muslim brethren hit by the catastrophe and to explain to them that the giant wave was a divine reprimand for those who do not follow the teachings of the Prophet. The Islamists call on the victims to close ranks around the sharia (Islamic law) and demand its full implementation in Aceh, from the leaders of the largest Islamic democracy in the world (230 million inhabitants) .

"The tsunami was Allah's warning.  He made it clear that He is the only one that can save us and that He has the power to end thousands of lives.  Now we must be united and turn to Allah's message to avoid more punishments", the senior religious authority of aceh, Muslim Ibrahim, explained to El País.   This cleric has no doubt that the seaquake has been converted into "an opportunity" to spread a more strict interpretation of Islam.   Dozens of volunteer teams have arrived from all corners of the country and are recovering bodies from the detritus, praying for them and offering "spiritual comfort· to the survivors crowded together in camps for displaced persons.

Himly Almascaty leads the Islamic Defense Front, an organisation of 800,000 affiliates with headquarters in Jakarta.   "They call me the ˘Asiatic Bin Laden", he jokes, and holds that "Aceh is the balcony of Mecca, a very special place for believers.  Allah has punished this population for not strictly following sharia law (already existing in this province.)"   Neither does the international reaction provoked by the tsunami escape the Deity's control, according to the leader of the Islamic Front:  "it is Allah who sends us the rice arriving in foreign aircraft".

Next to the mosque, installed in tents, more than one thousand young people of the organisation are resting after a workday in which they have unearthed hundreds of people from the wreckage and reburied them in communal graves Another 500 volunteers will arrive from Java next week. Some of the volunteers speak broken Arabic and nearly all sport the cap worn by students of the madrassas.   "The arrival of the foreigners after the tsunami could be very dangerous for Ache's tradition", says Jafar Sidiq, the camp's coordinator. He says that some of the young people have come to reinforce the (religious) police charged with keeping a watch on Aceh's compliance with Islamic law. "If we see some woman in the street without a veil, we insist that it be worn", says Sidiq,  from whose forehead a protuberance sticks out, formed by his frequently resting the head on the ground during prayers.

Meanwhile, in Banda Aceh's more deprived areas, the head of Social Affairs of Majelis Muyaheddin awaits the arrival of wounded to be treated.   "Our mission is to explain to society what comprises Islamic law and the benefits gained at the end", says Dr. Mahdi, who has come from Yogyyakarta, one of the main Indonesian cities.   "We also teach the people to recite the Quran and we give them spiritual guidance. There are 300 volunteers, and we have 200 students, all children, some of them orphans", explains this doctor, who assures us that there is no place for women in his organisation.   "Their role is to stay at home, washing and cooking".

Fatma, a nineteen-year-old young woman, rigorously educated in the religion, agreed with Mahdi that "with the tsunami, God has shown that he can kill whenever He likes, and because of that we must pray more and remember God".  However, Fatma did not share the vision that the muyaheddin have of women.   She points out, "I study Mathematics at the University of Siiah Kuala [in Banda Aceh] and then I would like to work".

For the moment, the Government has tolerated the spiritual campaign unleashed by the seaquake.   Nevertheless, the religious question puts the Indonesian Political and Security Affairs Minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyong, in a difficult position.  On the one hand, he is obliged to flirt with the Islamists in search of the parliamentary support of the opposition, and on the other hand, the ex-general has to be assured of the confidence of the Army, charged with combating the Movement for a Free Aceh (GAM), defender of an Islamic State in a secessionist province.

John Heelan

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 1, 2005