Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam is once again in the news. This time it is not because of a tsunami or any separatist movement, but because of the “ qanun jinayat ” (“ fiqh ” in Arabic), or religious jurisprudence-based law, passed by the regional legislature on Sept. 14.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera the same day the law was passed, however, Deputy Governor Nazar made it very clear that the provincial government was not in favor of the legislation. He promised to have the law reviewed, and was blunt enough to say, “We have to synchronize with the situation of the people. Aceh is different to the Middle East.” Speaking to the local media, he was not as blunt.

More recently, clerics in Aceh raised objections over the winner of the Miss Indonesia Contest, Qori Sandioriva, 18, who appeared without a jilbab , or headscarf. Qori, who won the contest on Oct. 9, represented Aceh, and claimed that she had “blessings from the provincial government.”

Deputy Governor Nazar disputed her claim, saying: “I will meet her personally to query why she took part in the contest,” as reported by the Straits Times, on Oct. 13. For the local press, however, his language was harsher.

Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia. Laws and practices like these violate all international conventions on human rights, to which Indonesia is a signatory, whereas Saudi Arabia is not.

However, hard-liners and political parties without any concrete agenda of nation building have nothing to do with human rights, international conventions or indigenous cultures. They have always depended on religion for votes. Therefore, they must have a religious issue to sell.

One such party member, appearing on national television, said that Aceh’s culture “was Islam.” He said the local law was very much in line with the religion, and that those who were against it did not know anything about Aceh.

Bachron M Rasyid, who chaired the special hearing that passed the law, w as reported to have said: “All parties agreed unanimously to pass the bill into law, including the article stipulating the punishment of death by stoning. … This law will be effective in 30 days with or without the approval of Aceh’s governor.”

Interestingly, a new and hopefully more moderate legislature has since been sworn in, replacing the conservative parties following their defeat in the last regional election.

I see this law as a problematic issue deliberately created by an old guard reluctant to relinquish the reins of power. If the new legislature “tones down” the law, as many analysts believe it will, then the “oldies” will have their issue to sell. They can once again politicize religion to their benefit by playing with the sentiments of the innocent masses. They have nothing else to sell.

A decade ago, when our government was preparing a special autonomy package for Aceh, allowing the province to adopt religious jurisprudence-based law, I warned in my writings that to have “two sets of law in a country” is like a ticking bomb: It can explode at any time, and pose a threat to national integration. Who cared?

I am trying to understand the spirit of our youth in 1928, when they pledged their allegiance to One Motherland, One Nation, and One Language — Indonesia. At that time they did not see religion or religious jurisprudence as issues. Otherwise, they would certainly have added “One Law for all Indonesians” in their pledge.

We were not united by religion or religious jurisprudence then, and we never can be. Religious values, or dharma in several ancient languages of the archipelago, are universal spiritual values, which have already been incorporated in the national ideology of Pancasila (five principles).

Fiqh , or religious jurisprudence, and fiqh-based qanun are “human interpretations of human understanding” of Shariah. This explains various schools of thought, madh’hab in Arabic, and various interpretations of fiqh.

This is why “stoning to death” is not practiced in all Middle Eastern countries. The states and monarchies in the region do not have a uniform interpretation of religious jurisprudence.

However, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, religious jurisprudence does make sense because they follow a specific Wahabi interpretation. This is not the case in Indonesia, as pointed out by Deputy Governor Nazar. Here, we are diverse, not uniform.

Saudis are known to believe in uniformity. If we study the minds of most of our Saudi educated clerics and officials, we know how they differ from us. This difference is deeply rooted in our respective norms and cultural values.

For the tribal Arabs, uniformity is a virtue supported by nature. They share the same desert land and limited vegetation. Their outlook toward life is shaped by such natural limitations.

This is not the case here. Our philosophy of life, “Unity in Diversity,” is the outcome of the diversity of our natural resources, geography and culture.

Back in the early 1990s, when political scientist Samuel P Huntington began to elaborate upon historian Bernard Lewis’s theory of the “Clash of Civilizations,” many of us did not agree with him.

Perhaps, we found the term “civilization” too provocative. What both of them meant by civilization was actually “cultural and religious identities.” It was the clash of these identities that they predicted.

This clash is happening today.

Aceh is torn between its own cultural and religious identities. What is the adat (tradition) and budaya (culture) of Aceh? Check the provincial government’s official Web site, You can find a tab on the site’s menu for both adat and budaya. But there is no content for either. What is more unfortunate still is that even the pages for history are blank.

Aceh faces a crisis of identity. It does not care to know if early 6th century Chinese chronicles spoke glowingly of their land and ancestors. Even if it did, we do not have any historical records of the intervening period. The next time we hear about Aceh is through Marco Polo in 1292. We have no records whatsoever of the missing six to seven centuries.

How many of us know that in spite of its religious affiliation, Aceh has always upheld its traditions and cultural values? We no longer remember that it was not during the reign of Iskandar Muda (whose role has been overtly emphasized because of his expansionist spirit and military expeditions), but during the reign of his daughter Taj’ul Alam (1641-1675) that Aceh was peaceful, stable and secure. Three other women rulers succeeded her. Aceh had no problem with that. Saudi Arabia would have been opposed to it then and it is still against the idea today.

In 1699, a group of Arab traders used their influence in the court to suppress the “female government” and put a chief of Arab blood on the throne. Ever since, Aceh’s history has taken the course of rapid decay.

Let us hope that history is not repeated. The people of Aceh must support Deputy Governor Nazar’s statement, that “Aceh is different to the Middle East.” Politicians and political parties known to politicize religion must not be given any place in Aceh, or in Indonesia for that matter. Governor Irwandi Yusuf has the opportunity to make history. Let Aceh awaken to its past glory, history and cultural heritage to attain a more glorious future.

Anand Krishna is a spiritual activist.

13 November 2009