Indonesia's 'Religious Revolution'

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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia-- Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and nowhere is Islam more devoutly followed than in the province of Aceh.

Last year, a bill was introduced there allowing adulterers, homosexuals and other religious offenders to be put to death by stoning. But the strict and often harsh Islamic practices have young Indonesians questioning their faith.

Spotting the 'Un-Islamic'

Anis Saleh, 17, was dropping his sister off to work when he was stopped at a security checkpoint manned by a group of religious police officers.

"I never imagined that I'd get up this morning and get pulled over," he told CBN News. "They stopped me because I'm not wearing long pants."

The officers belong to a special police unit that cracks down on people who wear clothes deemed "un-Islamic." They also keep a close eye on any unmarried couples who sit too close to each other, people drinking alcohol or women who are not adequately covered.

In Part 1 of this series, CBN News also took an up close look at how the Sharia police enforce strict moral and religious codes. Click here for that story.

During the stop, Saleh was taken to a table and lectured on what is permissible in Islam.

"This is silly," he said. "It gets so hot here during the summer and I like to wear shorts. I can't believe the officers think that this against my religion. This is crazy."

His comments were interrupted by an officer.

"Listen here, young man. You are breaking Islamic law," the officers said. "Men are supposed to wear long pants and that is why you were stopped. Now stop talking with these people (CBN News) and move on. This is your last warning."

Big Restrictions, Little Comfort

Islamic law was introduced in Aceh province in 2001. Some 2,500 religious men and women are hired to enforce the laws, putting severe restrictions on the people.

"We have to keep an eye on the young people especially," said Haji Marjuki, the head of the Islamic police force. "They have a tendency to rebel against these laws."

The ocean front is where many young people spend their evenings. Sisters Ervani and Arini Wilda are usually among them, but they're never totally relaxed.

"The Sharia police are always on the prowl," Arini Wilda said as she constantly looked over her shoulder. "These men are looking for unmarried couples kissing or sitting too close to each other."

"Young people are rebelling against these restrictions and some are even questioning what it means to be a Muslim," Ervani Wilda added.

And the presence of the Sharia police isn't helping.

"The Sharia police are very unpopular," said Sidney Jones, an American who lives in Indonesia's capital Jakarta.

Jones covers Islamic issues for a Brussels-based firm and has documented national attitudes toward the religious police.

"They encourage a kind of vigilantism," she explained. "They encourage neighbors to report on neighbors and they themselves have been implicated in a number of serious crimes."

One recent case involved an officer accused of raping a woman he'd arrested for illicit relations with a man.

Taming the Rules

"I wish it used to be like the old days before the rules. We were much freer," Ervani said. "Now we have to play a kind of hide and seek with the police."

Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim population. A Pew poll found that 80 percent of Indonesian Muslims say that they pray at least five times a day.

But a growing number of them, especially in big cities like Jakarta, are pushing for a more moderate version of Islam, unlike that practiced in Banda Aceh.

"I think people in other Muslim countries will be shocked and surprised to see this," said 19-year-old student Nindy -- who was wearing shorts in public. "But it's not about what you wear, but what it is in your heart. We should be open and respect each other's opinion."

Looking to Christianity

But those who still feel disillusioned by Islam are turning elsewhere. Many of them are embracing Christianity and apparently in big numbers.

A recent Time Magazine article called Christianity's surge in Indonesia a "religious revolution."

One Indonesian pastor, whose identity is concealed for security reasons, works in Banda Aceh. She meets with a group of believers, many of them Muslim converts to Christianity, and says she's witnessed an explosion of church growth since the 2004 tsunami.

"Before the tsunami, this area was very closed to the Gospel, but things have changed," she said. "People are more receptive now."

Back at the police checkpoint -- after a few choice words with the police officer -- Saleh was allowed to move on with his day. Still, he is determined not to obey the religious admonition of the officers.

"I'm really disappointed, really disappointed," Saleh said.

*Originally aired June 10, 2010.

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George Thomas

George Thomas

CBN News Sr. Reporter

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