Indonesia: Syariah Law Comes To Aceh


Dr Edward Aspinall

On 15 March 15, coinciding with the first day of the Islamic new year, the Governor of Aceh, Abdullah Puteh, proclaimed the enactment of Islamic syariah law in his province. This step, he said, was the final realisation of promises made to Aceh by Indonesia’s President Sukarno in the 1940s and 1950s. It would salve the historical ‘disappointment’ of the Acehnese, and thus help to bring an end to the long-standing armed conflict in the territory.

The separatist Free Aceh Movement, along with many local human rights activists and intellectuals, responded by calling implementation of syariah a ‘trick.’ The Free Aceh Movement, which has been leading an armed insurgency in the territory since 1976, says that only Aceh’s independent statehood will bring peace. Human rights activists argue that peace requires an end to abuses by the security forces which, they say, continue to generate popular support for the insurgency.

Although government officials argue that implementation of syariah will help to end the insurgency, there is widespread confusion as to what precisely syariah law will entail. Despite Governor Puteh’s proclamation, few new regulations have been issued by the provincial legislature, and none has been rigorously enforced. Neither a syariah court nor a syariah police force has yet been established, although both are planned.

So far, new regulations relate only to social matters. The most contentious is a provision enforcing the Islamic dress code, in practice meaning that Muslim women must wear the jilbab headscarf (although even this has not yet been consistently enforced).

The legal status of syariah is also ambiguous. An Aceh Special Autonomy Law passed last year seems to give the province far-reaching authority to implement syariah in all its aspects. It is unclear, however, about what would happen when local syariah provisions conflict with national law.

Here lies the seed of future conflict. Local government officials and legislators, for example, are adamant that they eventually want to enact the full Islamic penal code, including hudud provisions which allow for the amputation of hands of thieves and the stoning to death of adulterers. Most central government officials, however, are committed to Indonesia’s secular public legal culture. Some of them have categorically stated that hudud style criminal regulations in Aceh would be incompatible with the national criminal code and hence invalid.

In Malaysia, an attempt by the Kelantan state government to bring in hudud was vetoed by the central government, and Terengganu’s current attempt seems likely to experience the same fate. It is possible that the Indonesian government may be more flexible than Malaysia’s, however, because it views syariah as a lesser evil than Acehnese separatism.

Implementation of syariah in Aceh thus raises important questions about Indonesia’s future. Since independence in 1945, Indonesia’s governing political elite has been mostly secular. In the 1950s, there was bitter conflict over whether a provision requiring all Muslims to obey syariah should be included in the constitution. At that time, the Acehnese leadership – who were otherwise profoundly parochial in their concerns - identified with the archipelago-wide struggle to create what would have effectively been an Islamic state.

In some parts of the country, local Islamic vigilante groups have been mobilising to eliminate ‘vice’ and enforce their own interpretation of Islamic law. In South Sulawesi there is already a ‘Preparatory Committee for the Upholding of Islamic Syariah.’ Such bodies eagerly await the outcome of the Acehnese experiment.

WATCHPOINT: Now, it seems, the nation-wide struggle over creating an Islamic state is being transposed to the local level.


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