In Islam Unveiled, I discuss a recurring phenomenon of Islamic history: when disaster of any kind strikes, it is all too frequently interpreted as having been caused by a failure on the part of the people to be Islamic enough. So the result is a renewed fervor, and new miseries for non-Muslims inside and often also outside the Islamic state in question. It is beginning to look as if the tsunami may be another occasion of this. There is nothing wrong with focusing and reforming one’s actions in the face of the reality of death; the potential problem here is that when the Muslims “wake up,” they will direct their attentions not only to matters of individual piety, but to that other Muslim obligation, jihad. From the Washington Post, with thanks to Anthony:
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….
“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….
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.”
UPDATE: More evidence of this phenomenon comes from this historical piece in the Christian Science Monitor (thanks to BigV): “Imams on the northwest coast of Java preached that the eruption was a sign of Allah’s displeasure at infidel rule, and urged a violent jihad, according to Sartono Kartodirdjo, an Indonesian historian.”