In a recent Newsletter (JVC-3), I shared the perspectives of Acehnese Muslims in an attempt to complicate singular notions of Islam. The Story of the Stick tuned in to the (dis)harmonies of Islamic belief and practice, and set the stage for a consideration of the role that religiosity and gender play in Banda Aceh’s political theater (JVC-4). 
One astute reader, a friend who has also spent significant time in Indonesia and Aceh, wrote to remind me to “emphasize just how different Islam is practiced [in Aceh] from other parts of Indonesia.” She also pointed out that “there is no uniformity in religion for the entire geography of Indonesia.” Her critique pushed me to reflect on how I had inadvertently reactivated the same media framing of Indonesia as a religious place that I had criticized in my opening paragraphs.
She’s right to note that Aceh is different – exceptional, even. Indonesians from elsewhere often define themselves against what they see as extremism in the province, presenting it as an exception to the rule of tolerance in the rest of the archipelago. Initial responses to any mention of my work there are almost always condemnations of the rules of syariah, often by Muslims who have never visited. I have taken to playfully dismantling this straw man (straw place?) fallacy, noting that depicting all Acehnese as religious fundamentalists fits incongruously with the other stereotype of the Acehnese as heavy consumers of coffee and cannabis.
Only two months after the argument about a stick in Masjid Baiturrahman, police found and destroyed nine hectares of marijuana less than an hour’s drive from that sacred place. That’s a newsworthy amount of ganja, but no international media outlet covered it. Why is it so difficult to view Indonesia outside of the prism of religion? I’m complicit here – I introduced you to Aceh by repeatedly referencing its grand masjid, which had an effect altogether different than had I ushered you into this rich culture with a cup of “coffee buffoonery.”2 How do our impressions of this syariah law-observant place change upon acknowledging that all this coexists?
The duality proves my friend’s point: it is problematic to think about beliefs and practices in terms of geography, even at the city level. Subcultures and deviants in all corners of Indonesia tend not to own spaces or dominate discourses, but they give the lie to normative ideologies, religious or otherwise. All too often, they escape reportage, and this matters: the act of looking creates the seen, but also the unseen. And seeing is an act of privilege and power.
In this Newsletter, I argue that the insistence on viewing Indonesia primarily as a religious place has actually marginalized moderatism and silenced secular voices. By detailing an event hosted recently by the Sacred Bridge Foundation, a collective of freethinkers and misfits bound together less by geography and place than by ideals and space, I engage you in a consideration of how place and space structure religiosity, radicalism, and revolution.
A year ago, the Walikota [mayor] of Banda Aceh made headlines by declaring Valentine’s Day haram [forbidden]. “Many Muslim youth in Banda Aceh are sending Valentine’s day greetings via social media. And it is the responsibility of the city government to ensure this does not happen again…Muslim youth should certainly not be celebrating non-Islamic culture,” said Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal.
You might recognize that name from a footnote in my last Newsletter. Illiza is the exception to male dominance in the political class of syariah law-observant Banda Aceh. After serving for seven years as vice mayor under Mawardy Nurdin, who died of kidney failure, Illiza was appointed mayor in 2014. She and Jakarta governor Ahok thus share two commonalities: neither fit the Muslim male mold that typifies Indonesian leadership, and neither was democratically elected. This could all change when residents in their respective cities go to the polls this Wednesday – the day after Valentine’s Day.
In the run-up to Democratic elections, it is not uncommon for politicians to deliberately create media events in an attempt to shape public impressions. Indonesians call this “pencitraan” – though I’ve always liked the slightly less politically charged phrase “cari muka” [looking for face], which describes going to seemingly absurd lengths to draw attention to oneself.