Indonesia’s Aceh Province and Shariah

Eroding Indonesia's Secular Freedoms

Agnes Monica, the famous Indonesian actress and singer, is given to
wearing sexy clothes, whether on stage, TV or advertising billboards --
but not in the provincial capital of Aceh province.

Just across
from the 19th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is a large billboard
that features Monica wearing a headscarf — even though she's a
Christian. Also absent is the tank-top exposing her bare arms and navel
that Monica wears in the ad for cell-phone service running in the rest
of the country.

Although the headscarf, or jilbab, is familiar
attire in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, only in
Aceh is it required for Muslim women. Failure to wear "Islamic dress"
is a violation of one of Aceh's Islamic bylaws, and violators can either
be reprimanded or hauled into court by the Shariah Police.

Indonesia having a secular Constitution, devoutly Muslim Aceh was
allowed to adopt parts of ghariah law, presumably to prevent the
Acehnese from joining the rebellious Free Aceh Movement (GAM). In 1999,
then-President BJ Habibie signed a special law on Aceh that, among other
things, granted the province a special status and the right to partly
implement shariah. However, the law did not stipulate how Islamic law
would be implemented. Two years later, President Megawati Sukarnoputri
signed into law an autonomy package that included comprehensive
regulations on establishing Shariah courts and Shariah bylaws. Based on
these two pieces of legislation — that were drafted, discussed, and
approved in Jakarta, Aceh established its first shariah court in 2003,
and publicly caned its first violator in 2005.

Five years later,
the obvious question has yet to be asked: why was shariah rammed
through the national legislative system and "given" to Aceh when neither
the populace nor the GAM guerrillas ever asked for it and perhaps few
people, with the exception of the provincial ulema council, actually
want it?

The answer has become increasingly crucial given that
scholars, activists and politicians believe shariah goes against the
basic principles of Indonesia's Pancasila state ideology, which asserts
that the country is multi-religious but secularly governed.

it has allowed a creeping Islamic fundamentalism to gain a foothold,
with other provinces and districts steadily applying shariah-inspired
bylaws since 2003 under pressure from hard-line groups.

like the majority of Acehnese, I was born a Muslim, but we don't need
shariah," said Muhammad Chaidir, a rental car driver in Banda Aceh.
"shariah doesn't bring us prosperity."

Indeed, the Islamic
bylaws seem to have brought the strife-torn province trouble, as well as
negative publicity. Chaider's comments are typical of many Acehnese who
long for security, prosperity and a sense of belonging after a
protracted 29-year civil war between the GAM and the Indonesian military
killed at least 20,000 Acehnese and the 2004 Asian tsunami, which
killed an additional 177,000 people in the province.

Today, the
Acehnese are governed by both national criminal law and local Islamic
bylaws. And as if that weren't enough, the chief of the West Aceh
district began enforcing a new regulation in May that bans Muslims there
from wearing tight clothing.

This bylaw — clearly aimed at
women — as well as other controversial events including religious police
breaking into a United Nations compound looking for Westerners drinking
alcohol, and numerous instances of public caning, have put Aceh in a
negative international spotlight.

"After being wracked by
conflict, the central and local governments should focus on a truth and
reconciliation program, not shariah," said Evi Narti Zain, executive
director of the Aceh Human Rights NGO Coalition. "If we raise objections
to shariah, then we will be labeled as infidels and accused of
disturbing the peace in Aceh."

Independent reports on the
implementation of shariah in Aceh have concluded that it discriminates
against the poor, in particular women, who are at the mercy of the
Shariah Police.

Middle and upper-class Acehnese, meanwhile, have
ways to skirt around shariah stipulations so they can enjoy their share
of romance and alcohol.

"They go to fancy hotels, or spend the weekend in Medan," in nearby North Sumatra Province, Zain said, laughing.

But some of the side affects of shariah are no laughing matter, including abuse of power by those sworn to uphold it.

July 15, the Langsa District Court in East Aceh district sentenced two
members of the Shariah Police to eight years in prison each for the rape
and torture of a 20-year-old female student they had in custody.

What happened?

So where did it all start and why? Experts have a number of theories.

believe that implementing shariah in Aceh was a scheme hatched by
conservative Islamic clerics who saw an opportunity to expand their own
political power and so they heavily lobbied Jakarta politicians. Others
said they assumed the military was behind adding shariah to the 1999
autonomy law so it would have a tool to divide the independence-minded
province and further isolate the GAM fighters.

And still others
said that Shariah was a consolation prize for the province after the
military and the nation's political elite rejected a proposal by the
president at the time, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, to allow Aceh to hold
a referendum on independence, just like East Timor did in 1999.

was indeed under the Wahid administration that Jakarta first attempted
to go down the road to peace after years of applying brutal military
force during the Suharto regime.

According to Ahmad Suaedy, an
expert on Aceh from The Wahid Institute in Jakarta, Wahid had even
enlisted members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the
southern Philippines to lobby self-exiled civilian leaders of GAM
residing in Sweden to start communicating with Jakarta.

belief Gus Dur would never allow them to implement shariah because he
was very committed to the unitary state of Indonesia," Ahmad Suaedy
said, referring to Wahid by his popular nickname.

Hoping to
initiate ceasefire talks and hold off pessimistic Army generals in
Jakarta, Wahid sent acting State Secretary Bondan Gunawan to meet the
rebel group's field commander, Abdullah Syafi'i, in a secret jungle
location in Aceh in March 2000. Syafi'i was later killed in a special
military operation in January 2002, further straining tensions between
GAM and the military.

"When I met Syafi'i in the jungle, he
never requested that shariah be implemented," Gunawan told the Jakarta
Globe. "That never crossed their minds."

Researchers on Aceh
have pointed out that GAM separatists were driven by a nationalist
ideology aimed at gaining independence from Javanese-dominated
Indonesia, not by religion, and never wanted shariah to be pushed down
their throats by the government in Jakarta.

Ronodipuro, a former spokesman for Wahid, recalled that there had once
been a discussion about actually implementing shariah in Aceh during a
cabinet meeting.

"The original idea was to separate GAM members from civilians," he said.

some scholars and political observers said that implementing shariah in
Aceh was "historical sabotage" carried out by various factions
including hard-line Islamic groups, right-wing political parties and
elements within the military.

"If we look clearly at the history
of Aceh, I believe what the Acehnese desired was not shariah, but
political and economic justice," said Bachtiar Effendy, a political
expert from Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University in Jakarta.

had given everything they had for the establishment of this country,
including their trust and natural resources, but they have been
repeatedly betrayed. GAM obviously did not want anything to do with
Islam, because they wanted support from Western countries for their
[independence] struggle. It is so strange that suddenly shariah was
inserted into the autonomy law. We should all question that," he said,
noting that the Aceh conflict dragged on even after Islam became part of
the laws of the land.

"Peace was only established after the Helsinki Agreement of 2005."

former minister said that the decision to grant Aceh implementation of
shariah was taken while three key government positions were in the hands
of retired military officers — the Minister of Home Affairs, the
Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Law and the Cabinet
Secretary. The Minister of Religious Affairs was a shariah expert.

International Crisis Group's Sidney Jones said that allowing Aceh to
implement Islamic bylaws, "even though in very vague terms," was seen by
Jakarta and members of the Acehnese elite as a political solution to
stave off more rebellion.

"It was partly the result of concern
about the reaction in Aceh to the granting of a referendum to East
Timor," Jones said, noting that the Acehnese people "overwhelmingly"
wanted a referendum of their own.

Enter the Shariah Police

Aceh today, shariah police officers patrol the streets looking for
violations. Their main targets are women not wearing headscarves, people
gambling or drinking alcohol, and couples having sex out of wedlock.
Far from being supported for upholding morals, they are largely hated
for heavy-handed tactics that have on more than one occasion turned mobs
of angry residents against them.

"They act like a military
force. It shows that at the subconscious level, militaristic hegemony is
successful after decades of conflicts in Aceh," Zain from the NGO
coalition said.

But some groups in Aceh have attempted to go
even further. In September 2009, the outgoing Acehnese provincial
legislature passed a Qanun Jinayat, a bylaw with a revised and more
comprehensive version of shariah, which included a section stipulating
that convicted adulterers be stoned to death. Governor Irwandi Yusuf,
who is a former member of GAM's civilian leadership, refused to sign the
bylaw, effectively quashing it.

Following embarrassing international news stories, officials in Jakarta asked for the controversial bylaw to be withdrawn.

[clerics] backed by organizations such as Hizbut Tahrir and
conservative Islamic parties like the United Development Party (PPP) and
the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) badly wanted to implement the Qanun
Jinayat in Aceh," Zain said.

The overall implementation of Islamic bylaws has thus far been far from flawless.

have seen many violations with the implementation of shariah.
Basically, it's women who suffer the most," Zain said. "There are no
guarantees that even when women cover themselves, they will not be raped
or molested," she said, highlighting the gang rape last January in East
Aceh's Langsa district that involved shariah police officers.

see the implementation of the Qanun in Aceh as a successful pilot
project, and it is prompting [leaders in] other areas in Indonesia to
also promote shariah. They copy-paste Aceh's Qanun for their areas," she

Playing Follow the Leader

Bachtiar, the
political analyst, said Aceh has become something of a Pandora's box for
the central government because other regions can now claim they are
being discriminated against if they cannot implement shariah-inspired

"If it's not wrong for Aceh, then you can't criticize
the emergence of shariah bylaws elsewhere," he said, adding that "those
who criticize local shariah bylaws don't have the guts to criticize

Eva Kusuma Sundari, an Indonesian Democratic Party of
Struggle (PDI-P) lawmaker, questions the central government's commitment
to upholding Pancasila. She said that since Aceh began to partially
implement Islamic law, hundreds of shariah-inspired bylaws have been
passed nationwide.

"By accommodating too many shariah bylaws,
the government is betraying the national Constitution," she said. "In
the unitary state of Indonesia we have agreed to use a national criminal
law, and condoning Shariah bylaws is an act of subversion."

Sundari claimed that an "elite group with a certain political agenda is playing a big role in the Shariah-based bylaws."

Ministry of Home Affairs reviews regional bylaws and should quash them
if they contradict national law. Suhatmansyah, head of the ministry's
social and political desk, said "the state can't do much about Aceh
because the people asked for shariah."

But activists and
scholars differ. The only people in Aceh who back shariah are local
Islamic clerics and politicians from Islamic parties, they said.

such cleric is Muslim Ibrahim, chairman of the Aceh Ulema Assembly and a
prominent lobbyist for shariah in Aceh. Ibrahim told the Globe he
rejected claims that Aceh was given shariah as a means to isolate the
GAM separatists.

"That is nonsense. GAM didn't want shariah to be implemented," he said. "This is the fruit of a long struggle by us clerics."

to Ibrahim, shariah had been enforced in Aceh centuries ago before
being halted by the Dutch colonial administration as it was considered
cruel. But Ibrahim says shariah "is the best law for the Acehnese."

claimed gambling had decreased by 40 percent within six months after
the first public caning, adding that shariah punishment serves as shock
therapy because it is purposely humiliating.

However, Zain from
the NGO coalition said public punishments discriminate against women
because afterwards, unlike men, they are shunned by society.

of creating justice, shariah creates injustice among the Acehnese
because we see how powerful people who violate shariah are free and
never punished. So the poor are punished twice: by national criminal law
and now by shariah," she said.

This story is reprinted with permission from Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.

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