Shariah in Aceh: Eroding Secular Freedoms

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.

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.


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