While the trend threatens to undermine Indonesia’s reputation for having a relaxed approach to Islam, it does not appear to have wide support. At national elections last year, the share of the vote won by Islamic parties plummeted.
In Aceh, many people say they abhor the stoning penalty – yet to be signed into law – although few will criticize it publicly for fear of being branded bad Muslims. But enforcers of a stricter approach to Islam appear to be gathering momentum. Public canings have been carried out, and earlier this month women were banned from wearing tight trousers in one district of Aceh.
In his dilapidated office in Banda Aceh, Iskandar applauds the crackdown. “In our religion, it’s forbidden to wear tight clothes, because they can show the body shape and arouse men’s desire,” he says. “It’s all about protecting women and increasing respect for them.”
On a recent afternoon, 12 of Iskandar’s officers – six men and six women, their olive uniforms crowned by baseball caps and scarves, respectively – headed out to Banda Aceh’s harbor area, where young people often congregate.
Taking a softly-softly approach said to be typical of Wi-Ha's tactics, they advanced on a couple sitting in the shade. One officer inquired: “Are you married?” Shame-faced, the boy and girl shook their heads. The officers examined their identity papers, then ordered them to leave. They rode off on their motorbike, flush with embarrassment.
Kuzri, the patrol leader, said he had given them a stiff warning. “It’s preventative action, to make sure nothing else happens,” he said. “We told them that to be together in a romantic way, if not married, can lead to bigger things and on to adultery.” (Adultery, in Aceh, means any sex outside marriage.)
A little further on, a girl and boy took off as soon as the squad arrived. “Actually we’re brother and sister, but we were leaving anyway,” said the boy. Another couple, fishing off some rocks, said they were married. Kuzri believed them.