Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, stands alone in having formally established Shariah law in Indonesia
But then the Muslim call to prayer sounded, and a waitress hurriedly ushered everyone back into the cafe. She turned down the music, closed the doors and covered the windows. It was the Maghrib — the second to last of the five daily calls to prayer — and outdoor socializing had to cease.
Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, stands alone in having formally established Shariah law in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country with a relatively secular constitution. In Aceh, women are required to dress modestly, alcohol is prohibited, and numerous offenses — from adultery to homosexuality to selling alcohol — are punishable by public whipping.
Aceh (pronounced AH-chay) began its experiment with Shariah in 2001, after receiving special authorization from Indonesia’s central government, which was intent on calming separatist sentiment in the deeply conservative region. Now, Shariah police officers roam the province, raiding everything from hotel rooms to beaches in a hunt for immoral activity.
In the decade and a half since, Indonesia as a whole has drifted in a conservative direction, and Aceh, once an outlier, has become a model for other regions of the country seeking to impose their own Shariah-based ordinances, alarming those who worry about the nation’s drift from secularism.
“Whenever Aceh issues a law, saying it’s the highest order of Shariah, it provokes others to do the same thing,” said Andy Yentriani, a former commissioner on Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women, who wants the national government to repeal certain Shariah-based regulations as violations of the Indonesian Constitution.
A recent study found that more than 442 Shariah-based ordinances have been passed throughout the nation since 1999, when Jakarta gave provinces and districts substantial powers to make their own laws. These include regulations concerning female attire, the mixing of the sexes and alcohol.
But for local officials, the spread of Shariah from Aceh is a point of pride, and delegations from areas with a history of embracing conservative Islam regularly visit to see how it has been carried out.
“They look at how we facilitate an atmosphere of religiosity,” said Syahrizal Abbas, head of Aceh’s Department of Shariah, who said he gives visiting delegations advice on how to incorporate Shariah teachings into law. Syahrizal, who is considered a moderate, said that Aceh’s version of Shariah was softer than that of the oft-maligned form in Saudi Arabia, because it welcomed alternative schools of Islamic thought and accepted the role of female leaders.
Indeed, Banda Aceh, the province’s capital, is led by Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, the city’s first female mayor. Many activists for women’s rights say they supported her candidacy in hopes that she would be a progressive leader. Instead she has proved to be a zealous, hands-on enforcer of Aceh’s conservative moral code, issuing a nighttime curfew for women and personally dispersing events deemed to contradict Shariah.
Last February, Illiza, wearing a black headscarf, strode into the hall where Indonesian Model Hunt, a beauty competition, was underway, interrogating cowering models about the event as news cameras rolled.
“Why aren’t you wearing a jilbab?” she asked one, referring to what Indonesians call a head scarf. Shariah police loaded the competition’s trophies into a bag and escorted models out of the building.
“Shariah right now is about what someone’s wearing,” said Ratna Sari, head of the Aceh branch of Solidaritas Perempuan, a women’s rights organization, who said she longed for a version of Shariah that tackled political corruption and promoted good public services. “Where are all the Islamic hospitals?”
The imposition of Shariah came after Aceh’s decades-long struggle for independence with the central government ended in 2005. Scars remain from the war, as well as the aftereffect of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people here in 2004. Today Aceh is one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces, with nearly 1 in 5 people believed to be living in poverty.
In February, the Acehnese will go to the polls to select new leaders, but none of the candidates for mayor or governor are willing to challenge the primacy of Shariah law.
Irwan Johan, a vice speaker for the Acehnese Provincial Legislature, said any real debate over Shariah was impossible, even though “a silent majority” thinks the government has gone too far.
“They’re not brave enough to say anything,” he said about critics of Shariah. “Talk about issues of religion and you could be expelled, or be considered a person who isn’t really Acehnese. Everybody became a hypocrite.”