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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.

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."

The cafe owner, Haji Nawawi, 45, who pulls down his shutters three times a day for prayers, agreed. He suggested that the disaster could persuade people to intensify their observance of the faith that, except for some Chinese Buddhists and central Sumatran Christians, nearly all of them share.

"Before the tsunami, all the people were full of bad conduct," he said. "Boys were sitting close to the girls. There was corruption in the government. This was God's punishment."

A number of people interviewed Tuesday in Banda Aceh shared Nawawi's convictions.

"We have to make a lot of changes in our lives, and this is God's way of letting us know," said Hetty Meutia Dewy, an agriculture student at Bogor University and a member of the Islamic Association of Students. "The imams have said it was a warning. They said God loves the Aceh people, but the tsunami was a warning to be better people.

Neva Zarlinda, an 18-year-old high school student camped beside Baitush Shakhir Mosque, said she also viewed the disaster as a warning from God and, as a result, planned to be more observant.

"I hope that I will pray more now, because I have done a lot of wrong things," she said, hanging around the government-provided tent where she, her mother, her father and her five siblings have taken up residence. "I seldom prayed. God willing, I will pray more."

Despite her resolution, Zarlinda did not bother with the head scarf worn by many Aceh women.

The Islamic Defender Front, a militant group that flew volunteers in from Jakarta to help in the relief effort, said its members were the first to clear bodies and debris from the gleaming white Baiturhahman Mosque, the main symbol of Islam in Aceh, which rises from a broad esplanade in Banda Aceh's city center.

"The mosques are central for Muslims," said Mohammed Maksouni, 36, a leader of the group, explaining why refugees instinctively flowed into mosques after they fled the wave. "And also, the houses were destroyed but the mosques were left standing."

Ansufri Sabow, 34, another member and college lecturer on mathematics and Islamic studies, said the tsunami could "cleanse the sins of the people" as well as caution them.

"God has warned us," he said. "Wake up. Wake up. Wake up."

The Islamic Defender Front has made a name for itself in Jakarta by trashing bars during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Although it has no known links to Indonesia's underground Islamic terrorist movement, the group has criticized U.S. and other Western influence in the country.

Sabow specified, however, that he welcomed the U.S. Navy helicopters working out of Banda Aceh to deliver food and relief supplies to isolated refugees. "If they come here to give food, give aid, no problem," he said. "Aid, not AIDS."