Pictures of fallen trees, destroyed buildings, mud, and poor people who had just lost all that they had, reached us through the television on Boxing Day almost two years ago. The tsunami of 2004 caused devastation on a terrible scale, and in Indonesia alone left 170 000 people dead.
In an act of solidary people all over the world gave millions of dollars to help rebuild what had been destroyed, in particular to the almost erased Aceh province. The Times now reports how that charity has been used, not for reconstruction, but for the creation of a new Sharia Police, enforcing the strict Islamic law. Instead of help making houses be rebuilt and new roads constructed, we have instead financed public lashings of women guilty only of not having worn a head scarf, having been too close to men, or of gambling.
The scene is always the same, and it has been enacted at least 140 times in squares and market places in front of mosques, from the towering minarets of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, to humble village places of worship.
The transgressor can be a man accused of gambling or drinking alcohol. But if it is a woman guilty of wearing “improper” clothing or being caught in proximity to a man, there is a particular ritual to the punishment.
She is dressed in white robes and veiled. Policemen escort her up on to a stage erected before a jeering crowd, which, witnesses say, is usually almost exclusively male.
Forced to kneel, the woman waits while a masked man ascends the platform. He is carrying a cane with a curved handle designed to give the inflictor of God’s punishment a better grip. From the loudspeakers, a man’s voice sonorously recites the appropriate religious chastisement. Then he begins to count. With each number, the cane descends with a vicious lash.
This is what the twisted minds of the Islamic fanatics have created, and this time they have used the money given as charity by millions of people who wanted to help the poor victims of the tsunami. Instead we have funded oppression and a new burden for the people to carry, on top of the other.
The UN, on top of all things aid, is as efficient as always.
For international donors, who gave generously to end the nightmare of the tsunami, the next few months will pose hard choices. “Nobody intended our aid to subsidise this,” said one United Nations official.
We believe you. But the key is not talking, it’s walking. Handing out aid directly to governments has proven to be a bad idea, once again. Time to do something about this.