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Tragedy and Religion

In Angry Waves, the Devout See an Angry God

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page A01

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 4 -- Aceh's highly influential Islamic clerics have explained the giant wave that devastated this overwhelmingly Muslim region as a warning to the faithful that they must more strictly observe their religion, including a ban on Muslims killing Muslims.

The infusion of religious meaning into the tragedy, in a province already known as Indonesia's most fervently Muslim area, suggested the consequences of the Dec. 26 tsunami could extend well beyond the death toll. The sweeping destruction has torn apart the infrastructure on the northern part of Sumatra island.


H. Asma, 50, cries as she stands near her home in Banda Aceh, which was destroyed by the tsunami. (Dimas Ardian -- Getty Images)

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The idea that the killing on both sides of a years-old conflict between secessionist rebels and Indonesia's military helped bring divine wrath could affect the way Aceh's 4.7 million residents view the central government in Jakarta. At the same time, the devout people of this region, who seem to have embraced their clerics' views, could demand even tighter strictures in Aceh, which is already governed by Islamic law, or sharia.

The extent of Islamic influence across Aceh has been on display from the moment the wave swept in from the Indian Ocean and flattened an uncounted number of towns, villages and neighborhoods. Down almost every road, beside almost every street, mosques immediately took in refugees, setting up tents and organizing food distribution before the provincial government or international aid agencies got relief operations up and running.

Azhari Banta Ali, a provincial official, said village and neighborhood imams across Aceh province have traditionally acted in tandem with local administrators in matters affecting their followers. The Islamic clerics here have little sense of hierarchy, he added, meaning the imam of each mosque wields strong moral authority within his own area.

"Wherever you go in Aceh, you will see the village leader and the imam working together," Banta Ali said. "One is the religious leader, the other is the government leader at the lowest level of the administration."

In this atmosphere, the swift care provided around mosques and the interpretation handed down in sermons and individual counseling by local imams seemed likely to be decisive for years to come in how the people of Aceh understand the tragedy that has befallen them.

"God is angry with Aceh people, because most of them do not do what is written in the Koran and the Hadith," the collected sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad, explained Cut Bukhaini, 35, an imam. "I hope this will lead all Muslims in Aceh to do what is in the Koran and its teachings. If we do so, God will be merciful and compassionate."

Bukhaini, surrounded by refugees camping on the grounds of his Baitush Shakhir Mosque in Banda Aceh's Ulee Kareng district, said people here were guilty of forgetting their obligation to pray five times a day and of concentrating too much on earning money rather than living according to their religion. Moreover, he explained, they offended the Almighty by entering into a conflict in which "Muslims killed Muslims" in contravention of Koranic strictures.

The provincial rebellion, by a group known as the Free Aceh Movement, began as an effort to split the region from Jakarta's rule. Although the movement has Islamic overtones, its goals are primarily separatist, and the conflict has never revolved around religion.

The soldiers dispatched here to put it down are Muslims, as are the rebels, and the central government has always voiced pride in Indonesia's role as the world's most populous Muslim nation. In that light, Bukhaini said, the conflict was unlawful under Islam, with guilt shared by both sides and the people of Aceh paying a terrible price.

In last Friday's sermon and in statements since then, imams have said the disaster should be a lesson to Muslims to more closely observe Islamic laws, including those governing consumption of alcohol and relations between the sexes, according to Aceh residents who attended weekly services in their mosques.

Unlike most of Indonesia, this province enforces sharia, including a ban on public sales of liquor. But the atmosphere has never been as austere nor the enforcement as complete as in other sharia jurisdictions such as Saudi Arabia.

"I think people were making love before marriage, doing bad things, forgetting to pray to God," said Jack Solong, 25, a waiter and dishwasher at a popular Banda Aceh coffee shop. "God punished us. I believe that."


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