In Aceh, few things can draw a bigger crowd than a caning. The conservative province, the only in Indonesia allowed to enforce Sharia law, punishes violators with a rattan cane, sentencing the accused to anywhere from 10 to nearly 100 strikes across their back. Local officials, all members of local Islamic parties, argue that their version of justice is closest to the legal system detailed in Islam's holy texts.
But the canings themselves have evolved into a spectacle, one that draws hundreds to the middle of provincial capital Banda Aceh to jeer the accused and cheer the executioner. The canings are recorded, posted to social media, and covered heavily in the domestic and foreign press.
And it's the last part that has Jakarta concerned. The central government told the Aceh administration to move the canings behind closed doors after local Sharia authorities decision to cane two gay men "caught" by local vigilantes made headlines worldwide.
"We don't like the exposure," Nova Iriansyah, the vice governor of Aceh, said at the time. "Every time we do a public caning all the media in the world will report the event. So what we want to do is minimize the news reports. We'll do it in the prison instead of at the mosque after Friday prayers."
Watch the VICE News report: Crowds Cheered as Gay Men Were Caned Dozens of Times in Indonesia
Last week, a woman accused of being a sex worker was caned 11 times before another huge crowd. By the fifth strike of the cane, she held her hands up in defense. The executioner offered a drink of water, and then continued with his grim duty.
It might be the last time anyone actually sees what a caning looks like in Indonesia. Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf wants to conduct all future canings behind the high walls of local prisons. He told the local press that it was to “guarantee the right of convicted." The governor said that too many children were watching the canings and that they were damaging the reputation of Indonesia abroad.
It's important to note here that none of these elected officials are talking about putting an end to the canings. They want to continue caning people, sentencing everyone from those accused of "flirtatious" behavior to those caught selling alcohol to the executioner's lash. They just want to do it behind closed doors and away from the gaze of the critical media.
But even this has set off protests in Banda Aceh. Last week, local Islamist mass organizations like Gerakan Rakyat Pembela Syariat (GRPS) and Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Muslim Indonesia (KAMMI) held a demonstration outside the Aceh governor's office protesting the decision to move the canings indoors. The demonstration turned violent and several were arrested by police in the end.
And right there, at the forefront of the protests, was the local chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), perhaps the most-visible hardline Islamist group in all of Indonesia. Tengku Muslim at-Thahiry, the head of the Aceh chapter, delivered a speech where he warned the governor "don't ruin Sharia law in Aceh."
The two are a strange fit. The FPI, an organization with deep roots in Jakarta and West Java, paints itself as a "defender" of Islam. It's right there in their name. But few are arguing that Islam needs defending in Aceh. It's Indonesia's most-conservative province, the only one allowed to enforce Sharia law under a special autonomy agreement with the central government.
In recent years, the province has actually been expanding its enforcement of Sharia law, not curtailing it. In the past, Sharia was really only enforced amongst Aceh's majority Muslim population, but in recent years, Christians and Buddhists are feeling the sting of the cane as well.
There's now a fight to expand the punishments available under Sharia law to include the beheading of convicted murders as well. If anything, Sharia is getting stronger in Aceh, not weaker.
So then what is the FPI doing in Aceh? The hardline group first arrived in the immediate aftermath fo the 2004 tsunami that left more than 250,000 dead. The FPI was part of the relief efforts at the time. Outside observers told VICE that the group was slow to expand in Aceh, where a decades-long independence conflict between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the insurgent Free Aceh Movement (GAM) have left many with a distrust of Jakarta.
“The FPI is viewed negatively in Banda Aceh and other cities with a liberal middle-class," Azhari told VICE.
But Tengku, the head of FPI Aceh, told VICE that his chapter has grown steadily since the Tsunami relief efforts.
"We grew from there,” Tengku said. “I think we already have tens of thousands supporters.”
Since then the FPI has been busy. They made headlines for a violent raid on a cafe that stayed open a half-hour after curfew and a campaign to get the district of Lhokseumawe—where women were once told that they couldn't straddle a motorbike to ride it because it was too sexual—to ban New Year's Eve celebrations, because the holiday was following the wrong calendar.
"It's not part of Islamic culture," Tengku told VICE.
Watch: Punks vs. Sharia
But it's in Indonesia's new war on its LGBTQ community that the FPI found a voice in Aceh. The group, already known as a self-declared morality police elsewhere, have taken enforcement of Sharia law into their own hands. They man their own intelligence gathering networks, reporting violations to the Wilayatul Hisbah or Sharia Police. And when the authorities don't move fast enough, they take the law into their own hands by mobilizing local vigilante groups.
“We give the Sharia Police information," Tengku told VICE. "We’re not trying to take over their role. But if they do nothing, then we will involve the locals to help us."
Vigilante groups like these are behind the recent wave of arrests of trans women and gay men in Aceh. The vigilantes pull people out of private homes and shut down businesses that have been around for years, all under the pretext that they are cleaning Aceh of dangerous, un-Islamic influences.
And while these raids garner condemnation amongst more liberal Indonesians and rights groups abroad, they win the FPI points back home, where anti-LGBTQ legislation has widespread appeal.
My conversation with Tengku quickly turned to national issues like politics. Tengku listed off a series of spurious claims, including that Indonesian Muslims were being "oppressed" by a government that was unfair to Muslims. He called the push to move canings indoors "an intervention," that was meant to ruin the name of Sharia law and appease foreign investors.
History paints a different picture. Every single Indonesian president, since the country's founding in 1945, has been Muslim. And Sharia law hasn't stemmed the flow of billions of US dollars in foreign investment in Saudi Arabia—a country that practices a far harsher version of Sharia law than Aceh.
But religion has proven to be a powerful motivator during elections. Last year's gubernatorial race in Jakarta quickly skewed heavily along ethnic and sectarian lines as Islamic fundamentalist groups like the FPI held massive protests in the city calling for the arrest of the Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, then the Chinese Christian incumbent, on blasphemy charges.
Ahok, as he is popularly known, lost both the election and the court battle. Today he is behind bars and, as the country inches toward this year's regional elections, the same tactics are being used again—this time against Muslim elected officials in other cities and provinces who are seen as not being Muslim enough for fundamentalists.
That's one of the reasons why Ian Wilson, a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, at Murdoch University who has studied the FPI for years, thinks the hardline group is pushing the Aceh caning story so hard.
"As the provincial government seeks to further regulate Sharia-enforcement, such as in the ending of public caning, the FPI may try and gain social and political capital by framing itself as Sharia's 'true defender'," Wilson told VICE. "I'd imagine this would be, however, largely opportunistic rather than something they are driving on the ground. On that front, they'd be competing with plenty of others."
It remains to be seen how much influence the FPI will actually have on the ground in Aceh. The province is far more complex than most of the headlines paint it to be. One one hand, it's a place of canings and church burnings. But it's also home to a thriving youth culture, friendly, open people, and plenty of liberal thought.
"Islam is a religion of peace and true Muslims respect each other," he said. "They don’t represent it at all."