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Sharia law draws rave reviews in Indonesia's Aceh

With little public criticism, unhappiness with controversial Islamic edicts comes mostly through subtler channels

Sharia law draws rave reviews in Indonesia's Aceh

Men and boys crowd Banda Aceh's Great Mosque for Friday prayers (Photo by Abby Seiff)

Published: March 06, 2015 03:13 AM GMT

Updated: April 24, 2015 04:55 PM GMT

On a recent Friday, three stragglers sat sipping the dregs of their coffee as the city of Banda Aceh closed up around them. The gates of the café, like those of shops up and down the street, had been drawn and the streets were clearing of cars. Soon, sharia policewomen would begin making their way around town, scolding any Muslim men they encountered shirking the weekly religious obligation.

The coffee drinkers, for their part, were not concerned.

“It’s fine, we have time, we’re heading to the mosque soon,” said Mirza Rizqan, with a laugh.

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“We’d go anyway,” chimed in his friend Sarjev. “For Acehnese men, if we don’t go to the mosque, we feel very ashamed.”

“It has nothing to do with [sharia police] pressure,” Rizqan explained. “Acehnese people go to the mosque…. People coming from other provinces don’t understand Acehnese culture.”

In Aceh, where 98 percent of the population is Muslim, Islam pervades most aspects of daily life. But as religion is increasingly standardized into law and regulation, policies meant to lend stability have instead produced new fissures in this post-conflict province.

“Why do we implement sharia law?” asked Alhudri, provincial chief of the Public Order Agency and the sharia police, not pausing for an answer. “To put life in order.”

A message from god

Aceh’s three-decade struggle for an independent nation came to an abrupt close 10 years ago in August, when leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) signed an agreement ending the conflict and paving the way for an autonomous region integrated into greater Indonesia.

Though negotiations were in fact years in the works, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in Helsinki in August 2005 came less than eight months after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and both have since been inexorably linked.

“A message from God” is how many Acehnese describe the natural disaster. Inside the Tsunami Museum, a long walkway suspended over a manmade pond is called the Bridge of Peace because: “after the tsunami happened, Aceh finally got peace”, as a tour guide put it.

Young tourists snap photos at a memorial of the dead inside the Tsunami Museum (Photo by Abby Seiff) 


Over the past decade, God, autonomy and Islamic law have become woven together so tightly that they form an official narrative.

“The economy, before the MoU, it was very, very bleak. And then politics, social [issues] — we had a big problem during the period of conflict,” said Syahrizal Abbas, the head of Aceh’s Islamic Sharia Agency.

“After the MoU, Aceh had the conflict problem and the tsunami problem. We wanted to have a strong character for good capacity building for Acehnese people…. And now [we focus on] how to make a stable society for Acehnese people.”

The answer, concluded the government, was a “soft-step” rolling out of sharia law.

Alcohol, gambling and adultery were outlawed and made punishable by the highly criticized use of caning. A religious police agency was established to dole out warnings and pass transgressors on to the relevant authorities. Sharia courts began to hear cases while policy-makers prepared increasingly thorough regulations.

The true success, however, has been in garnering public opinion.

“In Aceh, there are no people carrying banners in the streets to protest the implementation of sharia law. In fact, if we don’t do anything, people will fight against us. If we keep silent, people will do something,” pointed out the sharia police chief Alhudri.

“We have the support of Acehnese society,” echoed Abbas.

History revisited

Policing morality has indeed proved a major hit in Aceh. On the streets of the capital city Banda Aceh, shop-owners and students, men and women, young and old, tend to offer unmitigated support for sharia law. Criticisms involve hypocrisy and uneven application, but the law itself is lauded.

“It’s good for sharia police to have roadblocks to control people. Acehnese people mostly wear Muslim dress but newcomers don’t, so it’s good to have,” said Lale, a vendor selling souvenirs at the sprawling and empty Pasar Aceh market. Covered from head to toe in spite of the searing heat, Lale admitted the government could stand to toughen up.

“They’re not so strict. They should be stricter. There should be more roadblocks and people who are stopped must be warned.”

A promotional 'cigarette girl' sells her product at an outdoor restaurant (Photo by Abby Seiff)


At a university café, numerous students concurred. Dressed in dark jeans, their hair slicked back with gel, boys chain-smoked while explaining the pros and cons of sharia. A trio of girls wearing long skirts and shirts emblazoned with designer logos smiled through braces as they offered unanimous support.

“It’s better actually because Aceh is different than other provinces, so we should be covering our bodies,” said Fia, 18, a blue headscarf draped neatly across her shoulders. “In the future maybe the laws will loosen up, but now there’s many violators so we need it.”

Her classmate, Mukti, said the main issue was the tendency of the police to persecute the “small” people.

“I agree with sharia law … but the implementation of sharia law here isn’t correct. It’s just like it’s for the local people — but the government officials, the police, they don’t follow it,” he said.

Condemnation is rare, in part, because criticizing such a law can appear like criticizing the religion from which is stems. More crucially, however, is the collective whitewashing of historical memory that has occurred in the past decade.

“Local people tend to forget their history,” said Haki, the only student to admit to opposing the law. “Aceh is based on Islamic teaching, but there were no regulations like now.”

Known as the Terrace of Mecca,Aceh has long been celebrated for its role in channeling Islam into Southeast Asia. One of the first Islamic states in the region and a center of Islamic study, the sultanate of Atjeh Darussalam flourished from the 16th century on. Its sultans and sultanahs (four women ruled in succession in the 1600s) protected and grew a prosperous and prominent nation feared by traders and colonists. When the Dutch at last made moves to annex the sultanate in the 1870s, they encountered unprecedented resistance. The Aceh War raged for a full 35 years, until the nation finally fell in 1904.

During the latter half of the 20th century, as the province struggled for independence from Indonesia, Aceh remained devout and proudly Muslim, but expressed little interest in top-down imposition of Islamic law. Even GAM, the principal freedom-fighting group and the source of much of Aceh’s current government, was vocally uninterested in an “Islamic state”.

"We encourage people to be good Muslims, but we don't think it's something for the state to decide," GAM spokesman Amni Ahmad Marzuki told the Christian Science Monitor in 2002. "We feel Jakarta is using sharia to distract people from the real issues here."

Moral arbiters

While Aceh might not have needed imposed Islamic regulations as a free state, sharia has proved a boon for a struggling autonomous state. For one, it has changed the conversation. Instead of discussing politics or corruption, infrastructure or economy, people speak about how their neighbors are dressed.

“The spirit was different than the ideal, which is to make people’s lives more prosperous. In practice, however, what people chase after is about dress, and such symbols…. The implementation of sharia law doesn’t change the economic situation, public service and public facilities,” said a women’s activist, who asked not to be named because of security concerns. She pointed out that as a student in the 1980s and 1990s, she wore short skirts, played tennis in shorts and rarely wore a headscarf.

“The regulation changed [the situation] and then it was welcomed by society. If we ask Acehnese people, the answer would be yes, they support the implementation of sharia law.”

When sharia was first implemented, no police existed. Instead, neighbors would band together to catch and punish those who they believed were behaving immorally. That unusual level of empowerment likely played no small role in popularizing sharia.

“In the beginning, it was society that conducted sweeps. There were cases in which the society cut some people’s pants and hair. In traditional markets, for example, those not wearing headscarves were hit by stinky eggs,” the activist recalled.

Today, the police remain heavily reliant on those local arbiters of moral behavior.

Marzuki M Ali, the chairman of the provincial sharia police, said the majority of cases come from civilian referrals.

“Mostly, the cases that we process are from reports filed by ordinary people. So the process is long. People arrest violators and bring them to us,” he said.

Public order police patrol a street in Banda Aceh (Photo by Abby Seiff)


The few people interviewed who said they disliked sharia law shared an extreme aversion to the element of public censure.

“When I’m with my girlfriend, we don’t have bad thoughts but people look at us and think badly about us. It’s uncomfortable,” said Haki. “We don’t feel comfortable [under sharia law], we feel limited.”

Twenty-three-year-old Rahman, a receptionist in Banda Aceh, said societal pressure had grown so severe he was looking to move.

“If I go to the park with a female friend, just sit and talk, people are [stopping us and] like: what are you doing?”

At its worst, such vigilantism has spilled into extreme violence. Last May, a woman was gang-raped by eight of her neighbors, including a 13-year-old boy, after they caught her alone with a married man. The group, most of whom were subsequently arrested, beat up and restrained the man before raping and assaulting the woman. Only after the attack, which concluded with the pair being doused with sewage, did they hand them over to the religious police for punishment under the sharia system. The man was given six lashes, while the woman — pregnant at the time of sentencing — is set to be caned after giving birth.

The gender gap

It is no secret that women have fared especially poorly under sharia law. Police data from 2014 shows that women have been written up at a rate more than twice that of men. Of 1,817 cases processed by the religious police, 1,236 of them involved female violators.

Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) has repeatedly highlighted “discriminatory” aspects of Aceh’s sharia law, though it has been to little effect and the situation appears to be worsening.

In a statement issued in November 2014, the group noted the growing number of Acehnese policies “that are discriminatory in the name of religion and morality”.

International and local rights groups have long argued that constraints on clothing, headdresses and the appropriate way to ride a motorbike are inherently discriminatory, but it is the less visible oppressions that are taking their toll.

In Aceh’s universities, women swell the classrooms. They ride bikes, freely make their way around the cities, run shops and head businesses. This is hardly the cloistered and aggressive situation seen in restrictive sharia countries. And yet, conditions are increasingly corrosive.

Komnas Perempuan, for instance, last year “recorded 365 discriminatory policies, an increase of more than three-fold since these results were officially submitted to the national authorities in 2009, which at that time stood at 154 policies”.

A sign inside the sharia agency explains the ideal dress code for women (Photo by Abby Seiff)


In a place where women once ruled a sultanate and launched resistance movements, they have been reduced to victims in need of protection.

“It serves as prevention. We must admit that rapes and other crimes are happening now. These are the impacts. So our main purpose is to protect them [women],” explained Badruzzaman Ismail, the head of the Aada Aceh Council and one of the original writers of the law.

That attitude is widespread among the general population.

“Women are the weakest product,” explained Eban Ibnu Khairan, a gem-trader and part-time imam, when asked about the reasoning behind restrictive rules aimed at women.

Come election time, that feeling has been borne out. In 2010, an Acehnese district council chairman made headlines after calling for the replacement of a female sub-district head on the grounds that under sharia, “a woman is prohibited from becoming a leader”. Today, just 10 out of 69 members of parliament are women.

Outside the public eye, the strict laws have led to a concerning amount of violence against women, particularly domestic violence, according to campaigners.

The last large-scale study, which took place in 2013 and was carried out by the 231 Monitoring Network coalition of NGOs, found that nearly three-fourths of violence against women cases were domestic.

“If we see the situation of women, there are regulations controlling their bodies and morality. Women are still subjects,” Roslina Rasyid, director of the Banda Aceh legal aid organization LBH APIK, told ucanews.com. “I can’t predict whether the situation of women in Aceh will be worse or better in the future. There’s an unstable wave — ups and downs.”

A controversial future

For all of the current issues, however, the real test will come later this year, when Aceh is set to impose its wide-ranging Islamic Criminal Code.

The legislation, called Qanun Jinayat, is expected to go into effect in September — one year after its passage by the Aceh legislative council.

Much attention has been focused on the fact that Qanun Jinayat is the first by-law to stipulate sharia punishment for non-Muslims. Though officials to a man told ucanews.com that they had zero interest in pursuing non-Muslims not wearing headscarves, for instance, under the law they would be legally obliged to do so.

Tens of thousands of non-Muslim Acehnese as well as visitors will face the same proscripts on daily moral life as their Muslim neighbors. Violators, regardless of their faith, can be expected to face prosecution within a sharia court and the sharia punishment of caning.

The law has also come under fire for its criminalization of homosexuality, which can be punished with caning and steep fines.

Abbas of the sharia agency insisted that the ban was not overly harsh, noting that: “a man and a man are allowed to stay in one house. There is no rule banning them from having meals together, to work together, to live together … even sleeping in one bed is okay.” But unsurprisingly, the qanun, which bans sodomy and lesbian sex, is drawing fierce criticism. Human rights organizations have criticized the provision, which has sent gay men and women in this already discriminatory society even further underground.

Scarcely focused on, however, is a crucial element in the by-law giving the sharia courts oversight for several felony offenses.

“Qanun Hukum Jinayat has alternative punishments. It depends on the judges. The alternative punishments are jail, a fine and caning,” said Abbas. “[The law] has articles for rape…. For a rape case, the punishment is about 100 lashes.”

That punishment (a minimum of 125 and maximum of 175) puts it on par with the punishment for homosexual relations (up to 100 lashes) or sex outside of marriage (up to 100 lashes). And by moving rape from a criminal court to a sharia court, the law risks silencing rape victims.

Under Qanun Jinayat, a rape victim who names her perpetrator but has no other proof could see the case readily dropped.

“The Islamic oath provision allows rape suspects who declare their innocence up to five times to be eligible for automatic dismissal of charges should the court determine an absence of incriminating 'other evidence,’” noted New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement released in October.

If the victim fails to produce four witnesses, she, in turn, could be charged with making false allegations and be punished with 80 lashes.

In its annual report released last week, Amnesty International highlighted the provision, saying: “there were concerns that the definition and evidentiary procedures related to the offense of rape and sexual abuse in the by-law did not meet international human rights standards”.

“Qanun Jinayat would make a rape victim tight-lipped about the rape,” warned Aceh activist Samsider, in an opinion piece published in the Jakarta Globe.

Young Muslim women take photos in front of Banda Aceh's great mosque during Friday prayers (Photo by Abby Seiff)


What we teach

Inside Banda Aceh’s sharia police station, officers milled about joking with each other as they made their way around the dilapidated building. In the courtyard, worn green trucks flanked a small mosque.

“I used to dress like you,” a sharia policewoman said, offering a warm smile before launching into a rapid conversation peppered with flawless English terms. “When I was in college, I dressed just like the girls living in Jakarta…. When I took the bus to school, we would be stopped at roadblocks and I’d be asked why I didn’t wear a headscarf.”

These days, the officer — who asked not to be named because she’s not permitted to speak to the media — goes around in a long olive tunic and pants. A matching headscarf drapes modestly across her chest. She mans checkpoints in this outfit, stopping teenage couples and bareheaded women, looking out for men avoiding Friday prayers.

Over the years, her faith has deepened and her understanding of Islam has broadened.

The clothes, she pointed out, “don’t stop you from being yourself”.

“When we stop people, we just advise them how to dress properly … by wearing proper dress, there’s a hope they can be more confident of Islam in their heart.”  



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