Indonesia: Aceh’s Sharia Law Demonstrates Danger to Secular Society

Posted on January 15, 2013


You may have heard of Indonesia’s Aceh province in connection with the magnitude 8.7 earthquake last year.  Or possibly the devastating tsunami of 2004.  Or maybe in the context of its separatist “Free Aceh Movement (GAM),” which finally reached an accord with the Indonesian government in 2005, partly driven by the utter necessity for recovery from the tsunami.  But there is something else that sets Aceh apart from the rest of Indonesia – indeed, puts it at odds with the Indonesian Constitution –  and that is Sharia law.

Dewi Kurniawati gives us some background in the Jakarta Globe:

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… 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.

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.

Ms. Kurniawati  is absolutely correct.  The latest fundamentalist foolishness is reported by Sara Schonhardt, writing for The New York Times:  the Acehnese city of Lhokseumawe is planning to issue a directive banning women from riding astraddle on motorcycles, or holding on to the driver.  The concern is that it is “improper” for women to sit with “spread legs,” and holding on to the driver could lead to “immoral acts.”  The Jakarta Globe quotes Suaidi Yahya, the mayor of Lhokseumawe, thus:  “We want to save women from things that will cause them to violate Shariah law.  We wish to honor women with this ban, because they are delicate creatures.”  Oh, puh-leeeze.

Yeah, this looks real safe.  CREDIT:  REUTERS/Junaidi Hanafiah

Yeah, this looks real safe. CREDIT: REUTERS/Junaidi Hanafiah

Thanks, Mayor Yahya, for “honoring” us delicate creatures by making it nearly impossible to safely ride on one of Aceh’s most common modes of transportation.  It is obviously much better to perch sideways on the back end of a bike, holding on to nothing, risking death or mutilation, than to offend your tender sensibilities by straddling a motorcycle or holding on to the driver, which is standard practice pretty much everywhere else.  The next logical step is that motorcycles are just not safe for women at all… oh, wait, Ma’ruf Amin, Chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, did say that.  His reasoning?  “What is seen as good by Islamic people is also seen as good by God.”  Well, how convenient!  And from there it’s not such a big step to say that the delicate little flower-women should stay in their homes.  For their own safety, of course.  How very… Taliban-like.

I don’t mean to tell other countries how to do their business, but it’s really pretty ironic that in the midst of a protracted and violent separatist rebellion, the government decided to allow Sharia law only in Aceh province — effectively separating the province that they were trying to save.  Now, 14 years later, they have an insidious and growing problem on their hands, one that could divide the country even further.  As Sara Schonhardt observes, some other localities in Indonesia have been adopting Sharia-like laws banning alcohol or prohibiting women from going out in public at night.

The reason fundamentalism “creeps” and is incredibly difficult to turn back once it has taken hold is that people are afraid of appearing not to be “good Muslims.”  This fear was reported by Jane Perlez in 2006 in The New York Times, and again by Ms. Shonhardt just yesterday, citing completely different sources six and a half years later.  The fear of criticism, of appearing less than devout, of appearing “un-Islamic” – is strong, even among the local authorities.  So Indonesia can’t look to the local communities to keep fundamentalism at bay.  This is a job for the government, one that will have to be top-driven.

If the Indonesian government values its secular nature – and if the Indonesian people value the freedom to choose how they live – they may wish to enforce the Indonesian Constitution in Aceh, and do away with the double standard of Sharia law.