Aceh: Sharia law in Aceh only for petty criminals

The Jakarta Post
A young girl falls into a hole and enters a world of confusion and absurdity.
The world of Alice in Wonderland is not dissimilar from the world the Acehnese now inhabit.
Last week in Aceh several poor people -- accused and found guilty of gambling under sharia (Islamic law) -- were publicly caned by a government-appointed executor. This was the first application of sharia since its imposition several years ago.

This is an absurdity; never in the history of Aceh has Islam been exploited in this way, simply to punish the poor. In the past Islam was the foundation and inspiration for the Acehnese to defend themselves against colonialism, social injustice and oppression.

Islamic values informed the fight against Portuguese oppression, which stopped their colonial expansion in Asia, and galvanized the Acehnese to defend themselves against Dutch invasion. The resilience of the Acehnese effectively bankrupted and thus defeated the Dutch. These values went on to imbue many Acehnese with the will to oppose injustice in the post colonial era. It was non-conservative values of Islam, a desire for equality and justice that motivated the Acehnese to seek freedom from any and all attempts to conquer them.

Only now, some ulema have been empowered by the government to punish petty criminals in accordance with sharia.

Gambling, if it is to be considered a crime, at least only harms the gamblers, at worst their families. Aceh is full of groups and individuals who are harmful to society, committing crimes that perpetuate conflict and exploitation.

The crimes of the powerful; the killing of innocent civilians or involvement in large-scale corruption seem to elicit a different response than the crimes of the poor. When the rich and powerful are immune from judicial action, even under sharia, and the poor are subject to the extremes of this religious law it only serves to institutionalize inequality.

A question was recently posed on the internet, circulated by some young Acehnese, asking jokingly how many times Aceh's suspended governor Abdullah Puteh would be caned if this law were to be applied to him.

How about if this law was applied to those who are killing Acehnese civilians? No, it will not apply to them, said the sharia authority. In fact it will not even be applied to the judge who is trying the first execution case, who has admitted to receiving money as a bribe from the defendant.

Indeed it is only for the poor, the powerless among the Acehnese, to bear the brunt of this newly emboldened sharia authority. The other group targeted are women, the most vulnerable groups of Acehnese society at present. Rather than government discussion about women's rights and education, the focus is now on clothes, the head scarf and women's manner of dress.

Sharia police have occasionally conducted sweeps to check whether Acehnese women are wearing their clothes in accordance with sharia. Recently, at a meeting of local government officials, a woman was made to sit at the back of the room. All this comes at a time when the women of Aceh are calling for equality, access to education and a voice in the reconstruction process.

This is an insult to Acehnese women, who in the past have asserted their will to play a significant role in society. To cite a few obvious examples, three women have ruled the kingdom of Aceh, there have been several female admirals and high-ranking members of armed forces. Most famously, Cut Nyak Dhien -- but there was also Cut Meutia, Pocut Baren and others. There has been no such discussion about dress code in the past, yet both Islam and women's involvement in wider society have flourished.

By emphasizing conservative aspects of religion and strict adherence to sharia, some leaders seek to blinker the Acehnese from wider problems in the region. They are exploiting the religious conviction of many Acehnese to manipulate them. In truth they are acting as an obstacle to change by distracting the locals from the main problem of injustice.

This orchestrated distraction is perfect for a government that seeks to neutralize progressive voices in Aceh. This is a strategic alliance, of the government with conservative religious figures, to pacify the Acehnese.

This use of religion as a political tool to pacify the population -- or as political bribery -- is a dangerous move. It is like setting a time bomb. When it goes off it could unleash a harsh era of intolerance and strengthen the forces of conservative Islam. This is the last thing anybody wants to happen in Aceh.

Originally published on Wednesday, June 29, 2005 in The Jakarta Post

The writer is an Acehnese human rights advocate working for TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign in London and Kontras in Jakarta. He can be reached at