The Islamization of Indonesia

Dear Reza Aslan,

I believe you’ve said repeatedly that countries like Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia are liberal Muslim societies that are largely free of oppression. That, you claim, shows that the bad things people impute to Islam derive not from religion itself, but from culture. And although others have shown you up for the mushy religious apologist you are, just let me add one piece of evidence for you to weigh should you be so foolish as to continue putting your metatarsals in your jaws.

As the Independent reports, an Indonesian woman was recently caned 100 times for “being caught in a private place with a man she was not married to.” Caning may look innocuous and painless, but it’s not unless the cane-wielder deliberately tries to avoid inflicting pain. In this case, the woman was injured so severely that she had to go to the hospital.

As you probably know, Dr. Aslan, parts of Indonesia, in particular the province of Aceh, enforces not just Islamic civil law, but Islamic criminal law. And Aceh was where the woman was caned. The man with whom she sinned was also caned, but. predictably, less severely:

Named only as Mazidah, the 30-year-old’s caning was watched by thousands in Lhokseumawe, a city in the strongly conservative province of Aceh.

It took place after Friday prayers and had to be occasionally paused because she was crying out in agony, Australian broadcaster, ABC reported.

The man she was found with also received a lashing but did not need hospital treatment. A third man found guilty of another crime was also flogged.

Public canings, used as a punishment for the violation of Islamic law, are common in Aceh, with 339 taking place last year, according to the Institute of Criminal Justice Reform, a think-tank based in the country’s capital, Jakarta.

. . . Earlier this year, two gay men were canned 83 times for having consensual sex in private.

Of course, you could maintain, as you always have, that all of this stuff is really just part of of “culture” and not Islam, but then you must explain why this kind of punishment is designated as “Islamic”, and differs from non-“Islamic” punishment meted out elsewhere. And is the culture in Aceh really that different from elsewhere in Indonesia?

I’d also suggest you read the new Wall Street Journal article, “Curfews, obligatory prayers, whippings: hard-line Islam emerges in Indonesia” (it’s free on Facebook), and learn about some other disturbing cultural practices growing in your beloved secular Muslim state, practices that, by accident of course, are correlated with the Islamization of Indonesia.

In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.

Of course that’s cultural, too, because we all know that going to mosque is a cultural rather than a religious gesture. It’s just a way for people to be together and express comity. So is keeping men and women apart.

And this, too, is surely cultural, regardless of what its promoters say:

In recent years, lobbying groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front have helped introduce more than 400 Shariah-inspired laws, including those that penalize adultery, force women to wear headscarves and restrict them from going out at night.

They are supported by a popular mood that has turned more religiously conservative. Protesters last month forced officials to cover a 100-foot statue at a Confucian temple they called an affront to Islamic traditions. Over the past year other conservatives have demolished statues in Java and Sumatra depicting characters from traditional, pre-Islamic folk tales.

. . . Women wearing headscarves are more visible, and the wait time for the limited permits to attend the Hajj to Mecca have risen to 30 years, from two years in 2000, according to government data.

Headcoverings, after all, are aspects of culture, for of course the Qur’an says nothing about having to wear them.  It may be a bit harder to write off blasphemy or the destruction of “infidel” statues, which seems to require religion to even constitute  transgressions, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to rationalize things like these:

One hard-line group that has seen success is the Islamic Defenders Front, known locally as FPI. In April it helped engineer the electoral defeat of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and close ally of Mr. Widodo.

The group and other conservative Muslims accused Mr. Purnama of blasphemy, a criminal offense, and organized mass protests to demand his prosecution. He lost re-election, was convicted and is serving a two-year prison sentence.

“The [Jakarta] governor election turned the FPI into something bigger than it had ever been before,” said Ms. Jones. “No one would have thought of it as a political power broker, and now that’s the role it has assumed.”

The FPI’s vision is clear. “The end goal is for [Indonesia] to be based on Shariah,” said Slamet Maarif, the group’s spokesman. That includes being whipped for violating rules concerning alcohol and extramarital sex.

“If you want to practice Islam, you cannot just be cherry picking. You should follow everything,” he said.

Well, I’ll leave it to you, Dr. Aslan, to explain (without invoking religion) the increasing incidence of such malfeasance going hand in hand with the rise and hardening of Islam. Perhaps there’s a cultural change going on in parts of Indonesia.

Oh, and just for your delectation, here’s a photo of a man getting caned in Aceh in May for having sex with another man. That homophobia must also be cultural, even if the punishment is dictated by a sharia court according to sharia law and comports with the imam-approved treatment of gay people in other Islamic countries.


Jerry Coyne

p.s. I’m sorry about your television show “Believer.”

h/t: Cesar


  1. Dave B
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Speeeling errors:

    practices that, by accident of *coures*

    *Headcoversings*, after all

    Guessing you were writing in outrage (outrage I agree with).

    • Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks. Writing while being called to dinner.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 14, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        “Call me anything you want, but don’t call me late for lunch!”

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink


    Religion. Poisons. Everything.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Hear Hear!

  3. ploubere
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Barbaric. Indeed, defenders of Islam have to explain how this is a healthy culture that doesn’t deserve criticism.

  4. jay
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Yet the EU has no concerns about Islamization in Europe, but instead is forcing (recent Eu court case) member states a to accept millions. A potential voting block that can drastically alter the legal structure of the host nation’s.

    • Christine
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      Agreed. That’s the main danger of accepting them into your country.

  5. Kevin
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    In my view a fundamentalist Christian (or Jewish)theocracy would potentially be much the same.
    Those good old Abrahamic religions: good for making people docile until you want them to turn violent and impose themselves on non conformist minorities or fight a war.
    If you removed Islam from Indonesia, you could have a secular, militarist dictatorship which would not be much different. The religion reflects (or is symbiotic with) the mindset: that’s true also of the West.

    • roadworker
      Posted September 15, 2017 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      Every country and every religious society has the potential to become like this, but there is no Christian or Jewish state that comes close.

    • Posted September 15, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      That’s what it was under Suharto, no? (And supported by Western powers, too.)

  6. Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Before you can exculpate religion from the crimes of culture you must first extricate the former from the latter. I do not think this is possible in most cases. In fact, the two are often one and the same.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      There’s a tradition arguing church-state separation in the West that has never had a counterpart in other countries.

      It goes all the way back to controversy created by the papal creation of the Holy Roman Empire in 800, which right off many Christian groups opposed as an unwarranted expansion of the power of the Papacy.

      Dante’s “De Monarchia”, published in the 1310s is a strong defense of the autonomy of government from the influence of the papacy.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I am now unable to mentally disassociate Aslan’s book title “No God but God” with this scene from Michalangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

  8. Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I was recently in Aceh province and while women are free to work and ride motorcycles there is a strong sense of strict Islamic morals being imposed. We were warned beforehand that Sharia law was the law of the land in Aceh, although Jakarta is much more liberal.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Caning may look innocuous and painless

    Clearly you didn’t go to a school that used the cane.
    I notice that the punishers are so proud of their actions that they wear masks.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 16, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      I noticed the masks too. Complete cowards. I bet we’d see a lot of pleasure on his face if it was removed.

      Islam is currently becoming more conservative because of all the madrasses throughout the region funded by Saudi Arabian oil money. (Get to them while they’re young!) Everyone is very good at hating Iran, but Saudi Arabia is a far bigger problem. They ally politically with the West, especially the US, so they come in for far less criticism.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        Everyone is very good at hating Iran

        Most people do that because they swallow the line from politicians. Not everybody does.

  10. eric
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Over the past year other conservatives have demolished statues in Java and Sumatra depicting characters from traditional, pre-Islamic folk tales.

    Because nothing says “it’s cultural, not Islam” like people tearing down statues of pre-Islamic cultural icons!

    I mean, I’m sure Indonesians had a tradition of excising the traditional components of their culture from their cultural traditions, before Islam showed up. Right?

    • Richard Sanderson
      Posted September 15, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      When someone says “it’s cultural, not religious”, they don’t seem to realise they are condemning an entire culture.

      I suppose condemning an entire culture is preferable to condemning an entire religion. That’s religious privilege, for you.

  11. Liong
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    Where can you get the wsj article for free? Thanks

    • Posted September 15, 2017 at 1:43 am | Permalink

      Try the Wall Street Journal Facebook page. You can find it by Googling the article’s title and look for the Google link that takes you to the WSJ Facebook page.

  12. Diane G.
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 3:50 am | Permalink


  13. Richard Sanderson
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Reza Aslan is a liar, and his lies help to lay pipes for Islamists and fascists.

    Simple as.

  14. Posted September 16, 2017 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I find it hard to imagine this level of hardline Islamic law becoming the norm on islands like Java and Bali. What do others think?

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