POWER TO THE PEOPLE: EXAMINING ACEH’S PUNK COMMUNITY


By Nick Vacchio
Staff Writer

Since the dawn of the genre in the 1970s, the tenets of the punk ethos have focused around the rejection of the status quo, the promotion of individual freedoms, equality for all and a strong opposition to injustice. Unknown to many in the West, Indonesia has one of the largest underground punk communities in the world. The local scene grew significantly in the mid 1990s as music from classic punk bands like The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys found an eager audience who were fed up with President Suharto’s 30 year dictatorship. Radical lyrics from Western and local bands lashed out against violent authoritarian government corruption and propelled citizens to take to the streets in open protest demanding change against Suharto’s regime. The protests were successful and in 1998, thanks in part as well to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Suharto resigned from office. The punk community continued to flourish throughout the country with underground punk bands and art collectives hosting workshops to teach street kids how to sing, play the ukulele and screen print. It was here that the roots of the punk community were firmly established and they have refused to be eradicated since then, no matter the opposition.

On December 26, 2004 a 9.4 magnitude earthquake took place just 60 miles off the north-western tip of Sumatra generating tsunamis that resulted in the deaths of 280,000 people. The Indonesian province of Aceh felt the bulk of the devastation with 85 percent of the capital city of Banda Aceh decimated and the lives of 167,000 residents taken. To cope with such a devastating event, the government turned outward for assistance and inward toward faith, perpetuating cultural clashes in the ensuing years. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world but Aceh is the only province that practices Shari’a law thanks to an appeasement by the central government toward separatists in the region known as the Free Aceh Movement. The separatists protested against the central government from the 1970s until 2005 when a deal was reached that allowed Aceh to practice Shari’a law at the expense of demilitarizing their forces. In an area that historically has been so fierce in defending their independence against outside rule from the Dutch, Japanese, and even their own countrymen, it seems somewhat hypocritical that the Acehnese would not apply this principle to their own citizens.

Shari’a law has created a highly restrictive atmosphere in the province. Khalwat, close proximity between different sexes who are not connected through familial or spousal ties, is outlawed. Unmarried women are expected to be accompanied in public by a muhrim, or male relative, and are not allowed outside of the home after 11pm. Public displays of affection among couples are outlawed and the idea of homosexuality is repudiated. There is an increasing sense of boredom throughout the city due to the only cinema in the capital being recently shut down. Music is censored and hardly heard in public spaces unless it has religious associations. Concerts must be approved by the government and men and women are segregated in the audience to prohibit potential mischief. Shari’a police strictly enforce the rules throughout the city and often target social outcasts like unmarried women, Chinese immigrants, and the LGBT community. However, it is the Aceh punks who best embody the struggle against oppressive rule.

The punks of Banda Aceh most accurately represent the pain and confusion during the community’s rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami destroyed families, neighborhoods and livelihoods. Dressed in black and covered in tattoos, piercings and unorthodox hairstyles, they challenge the ever-increasing authoritarian grip slowly choking the city. The government and the majority of conservative Acehnese society view the punks as a “social disease” needing eradication due to their appearance, embrace of western ideals and assumed rejection of Islam. However, many of the punks continue to practice their faith. “We’re all Muslim. We go to the mosque too,” clarified a local punk who goes by Scooby. “When we pray, we take off our piercings and put on prayer garb. When we go back out, we put all of our piercings back in.” The social stigma attached to their unorthodox appearance makes their life a struggle on a daily basis.

This small, close-knit community of mostly teens and young adults made headlines around the world in late 2011 when 64 of them were rounded up in Banda Aceh by Shari’a police while hosting a concert to raise money for local orphanages. The youths had their mohawks and flamboyant hairstyles shaved off their heads and piercings removed. Their tattered black clothing was burned and they were forced to bathe in a lake for being morally unclean. They were also required to attend a ten day re-education camp in an attempt to put them back on the honest path. In response to this unprovoked assault, humanitarian organizations and punk communities around the world made donations and spread the news that their scene was under attack. Global activist punk icons, Propagandhi, stood in unity with their brethren overseas and issued a statement to address potential apathy from people around the world:

Let this be a reminder of what happens when society follows fundamentalists and allows ‘morals’ to be dictated. There are a lot of people in all our countries who would love to give the ‘spiritual cleansing’ treatment to punks as well as people of other religions, fans of Harry Potter, and countless other groups they may label as ‘deviants.’ If you believe in human dignity, autonomy, and the right for people to be able to make their own decisions, keep fighting for your rights and freedoms, as well as the rights and freedoms of others.

But Deputy Mayor of Banda Aceh, Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, demised the resistance from outside community borders. She and her council of Muslim scholars, or ulama, wish to outlaw the punk rock lifestyle completely through the passing of a specifically constructed holy law. She used her record of attacking the punk community to get re-elected, has the support of the community behind her, and claims that punks, “are out of sync with Islam. We don’t want it to spread to the next generation.” By stigmatizing the punks and using them as a scapegoat for social ills in the community, Djamal and her constituents remove attention from the rampant corruption that exists throughout the province. She has contributed to allowing entire tracts of forest to be cut down in exchange for personal profit.

With the community against them, the Aceh punks navigate their world the best they can. Banned from gathering in most public places around the city, the Aceh Tsunami Museum is one of the few places that offers them refuge. Their days are spent navigating around police, busking around the city singing songs with punk themes, and strumming along on their ukuleles. They squat in unoccupied buildings screen printing and making other types of art to sell to whoever will buy them. Concerts are held to support themselves financially and raise awareness for local issues. Even if the community doesn’t have the punk’s backs, the punks have theirs.

Fortunately, not everyone from the country agrees with Aceh’s conservative policies. I had the opportunity to interview Sherilyn Tjandra, a fellow student who left the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to study at UC San Diego. She disagrees with the practice of Shari’a law saying that it is, “unwelcoming and unfair, especially towards women. Lots of these laws are not in accordance with common sense and I don’t believe that they will make their followers better people.” She then told me, “Back home we, as a non-Muslim people, never complain because we understand that we are minorities and as long as their practices don’t harm us, we are willing to accept changes in rules and lifestyles.” Her sentiments are echoed by Scooby, one of the leading members of the punks in Banda Aceh interviewed in a documentary recently released in early 2016. “We only hope that we can be accepted, that’s enough. We can live in unity with others. After all, we’re also human. We’re the same, it’s only that we have a different way of thinking, different way of living.”

Despite the hardships, the punks of Banda Aceh continue to fight the good fight. Their struggle continues to gain international attention and they now have human rights lawyers working to defend them against injustice. There exists a colloquialism that states punk is dead, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As Karli Munn summarizes, “Punk doesn’t lose its radicalism in times of stability and peace. By connecting to everyday struggles, punk remains a threat to established power because punk refuses to work within the system when the system isn’t working.” It is a long war. But it is a war that will be won. In solidarity, friends.

Image by Ikhlasul Amal

#BRINGBACKOURGIRLS AND THE LIMITS OF INTERNATIONAL ACTION

by Rashika Rakibullah
Staff Writer

The recent kidnapping and disappearance of 284 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamist group Boko Haram has captured the world’s attention, sparked the popular Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and brought attention to the tumultuous situation in Africa’s most populous country. The organization has released videos claiming to have converted the girls to Islam and speaking of their plans to sell them into slavery or marry them off to their members. Although the kidnapping is the most prominent incident to date, the conflict in Nigeria between militant Islamic groups and the secular government and Christian minority dates back to the late 1990s. Boko Haram is the largest such militant group and has existed since 2002. Since then, they have carried out numerous bombings, assassinations and other attacks that have claimed approximately 10,000 lives in the last decade. Despite the worldwide concern for the missing girls, it is unclear how the Nigerian government—even with the support of the international community—can bring them back, given the nature of the conflict.

Founded by a university-educated, English-speaking man named Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram’s stated goal is to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria based on Shariah law. They oppose all aspects of Westernization, which they believe has corrupted the country; they see it as the basis of the crime and lawlessness that is prevalent throughout the nation. According to the group, activities that are deemed “Western” include voting in elections, wearing Western-style shirts and pants, and attending non-religious schools. Proponents of Boko Haram’s version of Islam insist that participation in such activities are “haram,” or forbidden and unlawful. They are especially critical of girls receiving education, arguing that they should instead be married. Despite its religious affiliation, Boko Haram does not discriminate when it comes to victims—ordinary Muslims and Christians, religious authorities, and followers of Nigeria’s tribal religions have all been kidnapped, assassinated, or attacked by the group.

For the first seven years after its founding, Boko Haram existed peacefully for the most part. Yusuf established schools and religious centers in remote, poverty-stricken areas, attracting students and followers from throughout the country as well as neighboring nations. In 2009, however, Yusuf was killed while in government custody and leadership of the group transferred to Abubakar Shekau, the current head. That same year, the government intensified its efforts to suppress the group, carrying out military operations against the organization’s infrastructure and jailing or killing many members. This was a turning point for Boko Haram, and the organization soon began a deadly insurgency in an attempt to overthrow the secular (but mostly Christian-led) government. In the state of Borno, where the kidnapping of the girls occurred, confrontation with the military led to a state of emergency being declared in May 2013. It is still in place today.

At the root of the conflict between Boko Haram supporters and the rest of Nigerian society are the country’s religious demographics, borne from Nigeria’s colonial history. Muslims constitute the majority of the population (50%) by a narrow margin and live mainly in the northern part of the country. Meanwhile, Christians make up 48% and inhabit the central and southern regions. The geographical split is the result of two distinct areas having been unified by the British into one protectorate during its occupation, despite the ethnolinguistic, social, economic, and political differences between the two. This resulted in differing conditions in the two halves of the country, a division that continued through independence in 1960, sparked a brutal civil war in the late ‘60s and still exists to this day. The oil-rich, Christian South has always enjoyed greater economic success due to its coastal location while the poorer Muslim North has struggled to achieve the same level of prosperity. This has exacerbated existing tensions between the various ethnic and religious groups.

Following independence and the civil war, the country was ruled by military dictatorships until 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, became Nigeria’s first democratically elected President. His administration was followed by the short rule of Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim, after which current President Goodluck Jonathan, also a Christian, came to power in 2010. The move towards democratization was accompanied by a new Constitution, enacted in 1999, which enshrined the right to freedom of religion and the right to change religions. In response to the Nigerian government’s evolution into a mainly Christian-led and nominally secular state, groups like the Boko Haram emerged to counter what they saw as the eradication of Nigeria’s Islamic history and identity. Since 2000, they have succeeded in implementing Shariah law in 12 northern states and have been vocal of their desire to continue the trend.

As mentioned, the kidnapping is by far the most prominent of Boko Haram’s recent actions and has prompted global outrage and calls for action from dignitaries such as First Lady Michelle Obama. Unfortunately, it is unclear what the best action to take would be at this point. Earlier this week, the Nigerian government committed to sending its military after Boko Haram, a move heralded by the international community after weeks of inaction. There is no guarantee, however, that the military will be successful in combating Shekau and his men. Armed forces have been actively battling Boko Haram for the past few years but have proved to be woefully incompetent in combating the insurgency. In one particular episode, authorities announced that Shekau had been killed during clashes with the police in 2009, suggesting that with his death would come the decline of the group’s influence. The next year, he suddenly appeared in videos released by Boko Haram, proving he was alive and well, shaming the Nigerian government.

There have also been calls for the United States and other global powers to intervene, and President Obama has already sent a group of military and law enforcement officials to aid in the search for the girls. Foreign interference in the conflict, however, is also not an optimal strategy. Boko Haram are by definition anti-West; they exist to resist Western influence on Nigeria. For Western powers to become involved seems at best counterproductive, as involvement could lead to further (and intensified) violence. Worse, it could also legitimize the group’s mission and goals to Nigerians aware of the United States’ deplorable history of recent foreign interventions. As reported in a popular article on the blog “Compare Afrique” this week, the U.S. routinely sends costly military missions to various parts of Africa for unknown reasons with unknown results in the unspecified name of “national interest.” Most of these are covert, and so we don’t know the merit or stakes of these missions, but what we do know is disheartening: drone attacks, U.S.-backed coups that topple elected officials and support for questionable regimes. Many have also pointed to parallels between this situation and U.S. involvement in Uganda following the #Kony2012 campaign, another social media driven cause that affected U.S. foreign policy in Africa, but with no tangible results to show except wasted manpower and resources.

As this article goes to press, Boko Haram has offered to return the girls in exchange for the release of 4,000 of its members and supporters who are currently imprisoned. For their part, the Nigerian government has indicated that they are participating in negotiations with the group, although they have ruled out a prisoner exchange. While negotiating with terrorists is not a perfect solution for any government, Nigerian leaders would do well to recognize that it may be the only viable choice to ensure the safety of the girls without causing further collateral damage through military action. Whatever the course of action chosen by the Nigerian government or its Western allies, the return of the girls would only mean “winning the battle” instead of the war over Nigeria’s future. The safe return of the girls would not mean the elimination of Boko Haram—rather, this incident seems to have bolstered the group’s confidence by bringing the world’s attention to their relatively small, regional-level organization. For a lasting and effective solution to be conceived, Nigerian lawmakers, politicians and citizens will first have to deal with the poverty, rampant corruption, weak infrastructures and institutions, and lack of educational opportunities that plague the country. Unfortunately, these are objectives that Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is either unwilling or unable to prioritize. Until these structural issues are addressed, Boko Haram will continue to strengthen its ability to recruit from an under-educated population long disillusioned with the lack of proper governance in their country. Nigeria must continue its journey towards democratization—and it must do it alone. The United States, and everyone around the world concerned about the 284 girls, should offer the Nigerian people their concern and support without succumbing to the temptation to intervene. After all, as Doug Bandow wrote in Forbes earlier this week: “only Nigerians can save Nigeria.”

Image by Stephen D. Melkisethian