Introduced as a Panacea to Combat Insurgency and Social Ills, Islamic Law in Aceh is Causing New Conflicts

After the fall of the Soeharto dictatorship in 1998, the Indonesian government began to assume that granting Shari’a (Islmaic law) to Aceh would mollify its population—alienated from Jakarta by years of conflict, massive human rights violations, and economic exploitation—and thus woo it away from the separatist movement.

Since 1999, an institutional framework for enforcement of Islamic law (Shari’a) has slowly been put in place beyond cases relating to marriage, divorce, and inheritance (areas that had long been handled by Islamic courts). Under special autonomy legislation passed in 2001, the Islamic courts were given a green light to extend their reach into criminal justice. The first set of Shari’a regulations—adopted between 2000 and 2004 and entering into force in 2005—criminalize the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages, gambling, and illicit relations between men and women.

But the introduction of Shari’a was less based on popular demand than on questionable assessments by the Jakarta and Aceh political elite. The Crisis Group report notes that many Acehnese thought of Shari’a as an “unwanted gift.” The Acehnese have never claimed an identity based on Islam alone, and piety has never entailed the kind of rigid puritanism associated with Saudi Arabia. In fact, members of the wilayatul hisbah (vice and virtue patrol) created in 2004—haphazardly recruited, poorly trained, and overly zealous—have become highly unpopular.

Introduction of Shari’a has led to a dual legal system (next to existing secular law) with uncertainty as to the dividing line in law enforcement. The new religious bureaucracy has a vested interest in its own expansion, with regard to its authority and staffing levels. Worse, the focus on morality seems to have become an end in itself and is leading to a kind of vigilantism that has made women and the poor the primary targets of enforcement.

Caning has been instituted as a punishment, even though there is no precedent for it in Aceh. Women are now frequently being harassed for not wearing a headscarf, even though Aceh has no tradition of using the jilbab. Other proposals are on the table, such as segregating boys and girls in elementary and high school classes, leading an Acehnese police official to lament that “This is not the Aceh I know.”

The Crisis Group report says Acehnese officials responsible for implementing Shari’a believe that failure to uphold Shari’ain the past led to the recently-terminated conflict. They also believe that restoring standards of morality will facilitate the achievement of other goals like peace, reconstruction, and reconciliation.

International Crisis Group, Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh, Asia Report N°117, 31 July 2006.