The Mohawk Crusade

The pictures were striking and went around the world: young Indonesian punks having their heads shaved by police and being forced to bathe in a lake before being "re-educated" in the spirit of Sharia. James Balowski sums up the events of last December and national and international reactions to them

By James Balowski

A group of music lovers organising a charity concert in Indonesia's northern-most province of Aceh found themselves the victims of the province's discriminatory and abusive Sharia by-laws. The youths – some of whom had come from as far as Jakarta and West Java – were arrested on the evening of 10 December 2011. Their crime was to organise a punk music charity concert titled "Aceh for the Punk" at the city's cultural centre to raise money for orphans.

Regular and Sharia police stormed the venue, rounding up anyone sporting Mohawks, tattoos, tight jeans or chains. They assaulted several people in the raid. After being held for three nights by local police – during which time they were denied access to legal representation and family members – detainees were transferred to the Aceh State Police School for "re-education".

"First their hair will be cut. Then they will be tossed into a pool. That'll teach them a lesson!" said Aceh police chief inspector, Iskandar Hasan, describing the punishment that awaited them. Hasan denied the punishment constituted a breach of human rights. "We'll change their disgusting clothes. We'll replace them with nice clothes. We'll give them toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, sandals and prayer gear. It will all be given to them."

True to his word, upon arrival at the camp, the men's heads were shaved while the women's hair was cut short in the fashion of a female police officer. The punks were then forced to bathe in a lake, change their clothes and pray. Twenty-year-old Juanda, a member of the Rebel's Dam punk community since 2008, managed to escape arrest by wearing a helmet to hide his punk hairstyle. But he saw the whole thing. "They were beaten up like animals," he said. "It broke my heart to see how my friends were beaten up like that. I could not do anything to help because the officers were armed and they moved really fast. They pulled my friends' hair and dragged them."

This was not the first time that punks have been targeted by Aceh's Sharia police. In February 2011, a group of youths were arrested and held for rehabilitation and religious indoctrination. Police claimed they were a public nuisance, accusing them of being involved in theft, brawls and assaults.

Despite being detained for 10 days, none were ever charged. The same thing happened to the 64 people arrested in December. Despite being detained illegally for two weeks, none were formally charged or brought before a court.

Regional politicians defend the campaign

The punks were arrested by the government of Aceh for being against Sharia law; after having their heads shaved, a total of 65 punks were sent to the police school to get "mental and spiritual guidance" for 10 days before being returned to their home areas

​​Banda Aceh deputy mayor Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal – who describes punks as a "new social disease affecting Banda Aceh" – defended the arrests and her ongoing crusade against the punk community, proudly explaining that she has supervised police raids at cafes and city parks.

Not only does she claim that the 10 December concert would have been an abomination; she also claims that the organisers violated their permit, which was for a charity concert for orphanages. However, Illiza was unable to say how or if the authorities had been able to prove it was not a charity event.

According to Illiza, public places such as Taman Sari and the Tsunami Museum are becoming unattractive because the young people who frequent them don't take regular baths and dressed shabbily. "Their morals are wrong. Men and women gather together, and that is against Islamic Sharia," she said. "We will keep conducting raids until they're all caught, then we'll bring them in for re-education. Aceh is a Sharia region."

Aceh's Governor Irwandi Yusuf also defended the move, insisting that it actually demonstrated the government's concern towards youth. "It was no charity concert for orphans," he told journalists at the State Palace on 20 December. "It is untrue that the police arrested them. That's not it. The truth is that the police are helping them develop." Irwandi said that there are around 700 punks in Aceh, most of whom lived in parks or on the side of roads, have no jobs, don't go to school, do not pray and refuse to go home.

Religious representatives react

Moral conservative groups, which back the strict implementation of Sharia law in Aceh and have been pushing for its application in other parts of the country, also supported the authorities. The secretary of the Aceh Ulama Association, Faisal Ali, said in a statement that the local government should offer no place for punk communities to thrive, calling on local government to issue a by-law that would ban punk communities in Aceh.

The chair of the Aceh Association for Imams, Tarmizi Rasyid, even suggested that the detention period be extended to three months. Also backing the move was the notorious Islamic Defenders' Front, which is known for vandalising Jakarta nightspots that fail to pay police protection money.

Several days into the re-education camp, a delegation from the Muslim cleric council delivered a religious lecture to the youths. But there was little sign of a mass conversion to religious piety. "Punk's not dead!" shouted 18-year-old Andre after being forced back onto the truck after a compulsory visit to a nearby mosque at prayer time. Andre said he was sick of being re-educated, and that it was having no effect. "I'll still be a punk when they let me go," he said. "It's my chosen life." Efforts to restore moral values by having the punks march military-style for hours beneath the tropical sun wasn't working, and the punks were showing no signs of bending. When camp commanders turn their backs, the detainees raised their fists and shouted, "Punk will never die!"

According to Banda Aceh deputy mayor, Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal, the punks "morals are wrong. Men and women gather together, and that is against Islamic Sharia. We will keep conducting raids until they're all caught, then we'll bring them in for re-education. Aceh is a Sharia region."


A flood of condemnation in Indonesia

Human rights groups have condemned the arrests. According to the executive director of the Aceh Human Rights Coalition, Evi Narti Zain, the police actions were violent and illegal. The Aceh Legal Aid Foundation worked hard to get the youths released. According to the Foundation's director, Hospinovizal Sabri, they had broken no laws.

In Jakarta, M. Choirul Anam from the Indonesian rights group Imparsial said the police violated the youths' freedom of expression, treated them in an inhuman manner in contravention of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Indonesia is a signatory) and denied the youths access to proper legal channels.

Chair of the National Commission for Child Protection, Arist Merdeka Sirait scoffed at Djamal's claim that punk is a "social disease", slamming the detention without charge, the head shaving, the dousing ritual and the military-style treatment as breaches of human rights. In the opinion of Ahmad Suaedy, executive director of the Wahid Institute, the methods of the Sharia police were not in accordance with Islamic values.

International reactions

The incident also sparked outrage among local and international punk communities. Scores of "punkers" took part in a solidarity action at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Central Jakarta on 17 December, cutting their hair in "Mohawk" styles in solidarity with the Aceh punks.

On 19 December, a group called the Solidarity for Aceh Punks United rallied in front of the national police headquarters in South Jakarta. Three days later, hundreds of punks held a solidarity action in Yogyakarta, calling on the police to free their colleagues. In speeches, they said the arrests were a human rights violation and called on police to stop using violence.

Showing concern for Banda Aceh’s punks: according to the governor of the region, Irwandi Yusuf, the arrests were for the good of the youths, and the punks were "happy" and even "enthusiastic" about their re-education


Further afield, a Seattle-based metal and punk label, Aborted Society, initiated the "Mixtape for Aceh" project on its website on 14 December, which called on punk music fans to create cassette and CD compilations of punk music. The label plans to ship the tapes to punk fans in Aceh.

A day later, a group of anarchist-punks in Moscow released a video on YouTube showing them defacing the Indonesian embassy in a show of support for the Aceh punks. In the video the group can be seen spray-painting a wall with slogans in Russian reading "Religion = Fascism" and "Punk is not a crime".

A Swedish Facebook event, "Support Indonesian Punks", called on punks worldwide to post pictures of themselves in full punk attire and encouraged them to send letters of protest to the closest Indonesian embassy; 4,500 people had signed up by 16 December. On 19 December, a protest was held in front of the Indonesian Consulate General in San Francisco.

Governor defiant

"Punk's not dead! Punk will never die!" Contrary to the claims of the governor, many of the punks showed no signs of either remorse or reform and were determined to continue their lives as punks


Governor Irwandi dismissed this widespread international criticism, saying "What does it have to do with international affairs? It did not breach human rights. Don't let foreign values make us slaves." The central government, meanwhile, has remained silent on the whole affair, with the exception of Social Affairs Minister Salim Segaf al-Juffrie, who lamely reminded police to "act persuasively" when dealing with minors.

Following the release of the detainees on 23 December, police chief inspector Hasan said that – despite the negative worldwide attention – he is convinced that that the police acted in the interests of the punks as well as the interests of the community at large.

He emphasised that the police had received strong support from the community, including from 21 Islamic organisations. But he also acknowledged that he received around 50 SMS messages containing profanity and obscenities. When asked if punks found on the streets would face arrest in the future, he replied "Yes, possibly," adding, "How dirty would Indonesian society be if it was filled with homeless punks in every corner of the city?"

In response to criticisms about the re-education program, Hasan claimed that the head-shavings and dunkings were a misperceived "tradition" practised by police cadets. Contradicting media reports, he said detainees were "happy because it has been a long time since they have had a bath," and that they were "enthusiastic" about their re-education. But when asked why the police didn't round up other homeless people in Aceh if they were so concerned about public hygiene, Hasan replied, "There are no homeless people in Aceh, there are only punks."

James Balowski

© Inside Indonesia 2012

James Balowski was a founding member of the Australian-Indonesian solidarity organisation AKSI, which went on to establish Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET) in 1996. He currently resides in Indonesia and is the moderator of the Asia Pacific Solidarity Network (APSN) website.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/