By Derrick A Paulo and Tan Jia Ning
01 Sep 2018
Has more harm than good been done in
Indonesia’s most conservative province, where strict laws apply against
adultery, homosexuality and gambling? And could other provinces seek to emulate
ACEH: At 3am, there was a knock at the
door. When Daud and his wife opened up, they saw a plain-clothes policeman
Just two hours earlier, Daud had placed a
lottery bet via text message. Although the amount was only 10,000 rupiah
(S$0.93), he was nabbed for gambling.
Under Shariah law in Aceh, the 42-year-old
security guard had a choice between serving a prison sentence, paying a fine in
gold or being flogged in public. The sole breadwinner of his family chose the
But that humiliation he endured in 2015 has
left him traumatised. “To have been caned was more painful than the pain I
suffered, especially when it was done in front of the public,” he told the
Three years ago was when Aceh implemented
stricter Shariah laws, including on adultery, homosexuality, gambling and
public display of affection outside marriage.
Even non-Muslims can be punished. So far,
at least five of them have been caned in the province for violating Islamic
Now, almost 20 years after Indonesia
granted Aceh the right to apply Shariah law, questions are being asked about how
far the country’s most conservative province will go in its efforts, and
whether more harm than good has been done.
Amid rising conservatism in Indonesia as
well, will this experiment with Shariah law become a model for other provinces
Safer Society, Or Less Free?
To outsiders, Aceh’s Shariah law may be
regressive and repressive in both its concept and application. But to many
Acehnese, their observance of it is but an extension of their religious duties
and an integral part of an Islamic life.
Mr Tengku Buchari Harun, an imam at
Baiturrahim Mosque, the oldest mosque in the capital Banda Aceh, believes that
the move in 1999 to give the province the authority to introduce Shariah law
has also helped to preserve public order.
“In the past, this area was full of drunk
people, gamblers as well, but now, thank God, they’re all gone,” he said. “Many
of them have got rid of their old habits … We’ve not seen thieves here either.”
Social activist Amron Hamdi has fonder
memories, however, of growing up in a Banda Aceh where people had more freedom
of choice – before the province was granted special autonomy, and with it, the
formal right to enact Shariah law.
As changes happened “bit by bit”, what
became obvious “was the way people started to treat other people who were
different from them”, said the 41-year-old.
He remembers that, in the early 2000s, a
group of men started hounding women in the street who were not wearing a hijab.
“There were also cases where they cut the women’s hair. It was basically ridiculous,”
“We don’t want to be naked on the street or
on the beach. We’re still decent human beings. We know our boundaries. But when
the government starts to govern our personal lives, I don’t agree with that.”
Head Scarves Even For Non-Muslims
It was after the 2004 tsunami, however,
that calls for a stronger implementation of syariah law were heard. Many
believed that the disaster, which killed around 170,000 Acehnese, was a form of
“A great disaster came upon the people of
Aceh so that they’d realise the mistakes they’d done,” said Mr Tengku Buchari.
The tragedy paved the way for an end to the
three-decade conflict between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh
Movement rebel forces, with the peace accord signed in 2005.
The wider implementation of Shariah law
that followed has, in recent years, become even more pervasive in this province
situated at the northern tip of Sumatra.
One of the groups that have felt this are
the mostly Christian community of Bataks, who had been living peacefully with
the Muslims – and practising their faith freely, without intimidation – for
Batak native Boas Tumangger feels that
Shariah law has not protected their rights. “Our community, especially the
Christian women, were told to wear a Jilbaab (a long piece of clothing)
or at least a headscarf,” said the 58-year-old.
“But we had never done that before when we
went to open, crowded areas such as the market. In my opinion, it has more of a
negative impact because our freedom has been suppressed.”
Dr E M K Alidar, the head of Aceh’s Shariah
office, has a different view, saying that the province’s non-Muslims “don’t
want to cause any trouble”, which is why they accept Shariah law.
“There hasn’t been any protest from the
non-Muslim community against the Shariah law. They even support it and feel
protected by it,” he said.
Vigilantes and Shariah Police
There are many cases of vigilantism,
however, as well as officials who abuse their power.
In one tragic case in 2012, 16-year-old
Putri Erlina was driven to suicide after the religious police arrested her for
allegedly being a prostitute, and details of the arrest were published by a
In her suicide letter, she wrote: “Father,
please forgive me. I have shamed you and everybody. But I swear that I have
never sold my body to anyone. That night, I just wanted to watch a keyboard
performance, and then I sat up through the night with my friends.”
In 2016, a vigilante group gang-raped a
young woman for alleged adultery. Now, the syariah police roam the streets
every day, on the hunt for immoral activity. Unmarried couples caught in close
proximity are rounded up during late-night raids.
Women are especially easy targets. Those
not wearing a headscarf or who are wearing tight jeans or revealing clothing
would be apprehended. Transgender women are stripped and have their heads
shaved in front of laughing mobs.
Alcohol consumption is banned. Residents
are even banned from the beaches and recreational parks at sunset.
Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf claims,
however, that the only the “mildest form” of punishments are being applied.
“There’s no cutting of hands, no stoning or
even capital punishment,” he said. “What we want is for the people of Aceh to
be obedient so that our social order will not be disrupted by social and
"A lot of coffee shops are open 24
hours a day. Women can hang around alone, walk in town and nobody will disturb
Without a detailed study, however, National
Commission on Human Rights chairman Ahmad Taufan Damanik is not convinced that
Shariah law has led to a significant reduction in crimes.
“There is no valid data on that. I think we
need to compile, comprehensively, the positive aspects and also the negative
aspects,” he said.
Even if Aceh is not as overly restrictive
as it seems – men and women can move about freely in the cities, run businesses
and attend university – the situation may change further if more Shariah laws
are introduced occasionally.
This year, the local government even mooted
the idea of beheading as a method of execution for murder, which hit the
And that is an example of the drawbacks of
Shariah law. While Islamic canonical law may have instilled fear in the minds
of potential offenders, it has also generated a negative perception of Aceh.
Cafe owner Rahmad Hidayat feels that the
overemphasis on the legalistic aspect of Islam may force investors to think
twice about expanding their business in the region.
“If outsiders think positively about Aceh,
they’d come. But if they think negatively, they might be afraid. A lot of
people outside Aceh look at Islam as more of a kind of punishment,” he said.
“They have the impression that in Aceh, we
like to flog people in public.”
Aceh is Indonesia’s sixth poorest province,
out of 34, with 16 per cent of its 5.2 million people living below the poverty
line. In 2016, unemployment stood at 7.6 per cent.
But economist Rustam Effendy from the Syiah
Kuala University blames Aceh’s lack of investments and poor economic situation
on the conservative way the economy is run, rather than on Shariah law.
“It’s moving at its usual slow pace based
on a classical economy. There’s no intervention to transform it into a modern
economy,” he said.
“Aceh might have good potential. It’s rich
in resources … We have good farms. We have excellent mines. The sea is vast.
But why is no one coming in? They might be looking at different issues, such as
legal issues and certainty in doing business.”
Dr Arskal Salim from the State Islamic
University of Syarif Hidayatullah agrees. “It’s a matter of management because
we can see other provinces that are still in poor conditions despite the fact
that they don’t have Islamic law,” he said.
Churches under Siege
The economy aside, the growing conservatism
is making matters worse for Aceh as it turns into religious intolerance, with
churches under threat of being attacked or demolished.
In 2015, a group of young men took to the
streets of Singkil, a rural district 650 kilometres from Banda Aceh, and
demanded the demolition of all churches in the district.
After their demand was ignored, they burnt
the Christian Church of Gunung Meriah to the ground.
“The police simply stood by while the
attack happened. They did nothing. They only said, ‘don’t, don’t, don’t,’”
recounted Mr Tumangger, one of Singkil’s prominent church leaders at the time.
Instead of delivering justice, the
authorities then demolished five other churches within the district. Their
argument was that the churches were built without permits, even though some of
them had existed before Indonesia’s independence.
Mr Ahmad believes that government inaction
has emboldened the extremists. “That’s why attacks from groups against
Christians have increased year by year,” said the human rights commissioner.
Indonesia’s Secular Principles at Risk?
Nationally, politicians have also been
bowing to demands from hard-line groups in exchange for votes.
A 2016 study published in the journal Third
World Quarterly found that at least 442 Shariah-based ordinances, including
curfews on women, had been passed throughout Indonesia since 1999.
Some provinces are now keen to implement
Shariah law the way Aceh has, noted Dr Salim. “But the issue here is the
constitutional position of those provinces,” he said.
“Do they have a similar right to claim what
Aceh has been offered? I guess they have no right to claim as such.”
Still, it worries Mr Ahmad that this will
be an issue of national security or national integrity.
And only time will tell if Aceh’s attempt
to return to the golden age of Islam would set the stage for the erosion of
Indonesia’s secular principles.
In Aceh, however, there seems to be no
turning back. To the majority of its people, Shariah law is sacred and a marker
of their identity.
“There’s only one Shariah province in
Indonesia, and that’s the reason why we prefer living here than elsewhere,”
said Mr Tengku Buchari.
But for Mr Amron, who has been living in
Jakarta for 17 years now, as long as syariah rule takes priority over the
province’s economic well-being, he does not plan to return.
“I’ll visit my family there. I love Aceh,
as I said before. But to live there, to have a career? I don’t think it’s a
good place for me. Maybe for other people, but not for me at the moment,” he