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Shariah in Aceh: Eroding Indonesia’s Secular Freedoms

Publication Date: 
August 18, 2010


A woman is caned and shamed in Aceh’s Pidie Jaya district for breaking Shariah bylaws. It is unclear who was actually behind the implementation of Shariah and resistance to the controversial code is growing.  (Antara Photo/Rahmad)

Banda Aceh. Agnes Monica, the famous Indonesian actress and singer, is a given to wearing sexy clothes, whether on stage, TV or advertising billboards. But not here, in the provincial capital of Aceh province. Just across from the 19th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is a large billboard that features Agnes 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.

Despite Indonesia having a secular Constitution, devoutly Muslim Aceh was allowed to adopt parts of Shariah 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 partially 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.

Worse, 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 hardline groups.

“Just 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 seems 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 the protracted 29-year civil war between 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 conflicts, 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.

On 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.

Some 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.

It 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.

“I 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.

Dharmawan 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.

However, 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.

“They 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.”

A 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.

The 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

In 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, the Shariah Police 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.

“Conservative [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.

“We 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.

“Many 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 said.

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 bylaws.

“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 Aceh.”

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.”

The 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.

One 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.”

According 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.”

He 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.

“Instead 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.

Aceh: A Province Born to Be Different

Dec. 17, 1949 The province of Aceh is established and Teungku Daud Beureueh is elected governor.

Sept. 20, 1953 Daud Beureueh declares Aceh an independent nation.

1965 General Suharto seizes power.

Dec. 4, 1976 Teungku Hasan Mdi Tiro forms the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in a bid to establish an independent state.

1990 The Indonesian Army designates Aceh as a “special combat zone.” Eight years of fighting follow, leading to the death and disappearance of hundreds of people.

August 1998 Growing protests from locals and human rights activists, plus the resignation of President Suharto see Aceh’s military rule lifted.

June 2, 2000 A three-month cease-fire comes into effect in Aceh.

August 2001 Indonesia’s new leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, signs a law granting Aceh special autonomy — including the implementation of partial Shariah law and greater revenue-sharing of its natural resources — in an attempt to ease separatist tensions.

March 2003 First Sharia courts open.

May 19, 2003 Indonesia declares “martial law” in Aceh after peace talks in Tokyo between Indonesian officials and rebels collapse.

May 19, 2004 Martial law ends and is replaced by a state of civil emergency.

Dec. 26, 2004 A powerful earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggers a tsunami. Over 140,000 Indonesians are killed, most of them in Aceh.

January 2005 Government-GAM peace negotiations begin in Helsinki, facilitated by the Conflict Management Initiative headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.

June 2005 Aceh’s first public caning.

July 17, 2005 Government and GAM negotiators announce a Memorandum of Understanding, detailing the terms of a peace agreement.

Aug. 15, 2005 The MOU is signed in Helsinki.

December 2006 Elections for the provincial governor, in which local and national parties participate. The election is won by Irwandi Yusuf, whose supporters consist largely of ex-GAM members.

Source: The Jakarta Globe

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