When Indonesia gained independence, it early leaders rejected a proposal to establish a justice system based on sharia (Islamic law). Until recently both politicians and clerics believed that politics and religion should remain separate. Now enacting Islamic law nationwide or in certain regions is a hotly debated issue. There have been demonstrations for the imposition of Islamic law across Indonesia.

Many Indonesians would like to see the introduction of Islamic law. A survey by the Center for Islamic and Social Studies in 2003 found that 71 percent of Indonesians would like the official imposition of Muslim law, up 10 percent from 2001. But when asked what Islamic law was their views were more moderate. Only 36 percent said the law should require women to wear traditionally headscarves and fewer than that supported punishments like amputation for thievery but some said they wanted to see religious police enforce fasting during Ramadan.

Islamic law in its most extreme form has been imposed on the local level in some places. In one village in Maluka an adulterer was sentenced death in an Islamic court in the early 2000s. He was buried up to waist and stoned to death by a mob. The leader of a local Islamic group that had political control of the court was arrested but was not prosecuted for murder. In southern Java around the same time a local governor pressured by local Islamic groups passed decrees that 1) required students of all religions to take Islamic studies; 2) called for swimming pools to be segregated by sex; and 3) initiated a zero-tolerance policy towards gambling, prostitution, alcohol and pornography. Some conservative Islamic politician would like to reform patents laws under sharia. A member of the Crescent Star Party told the Los Angeles Times, “Western countries give to much power to inventors and founders without considerations to peoples needs.

Local Government Sharia Laws in Indonesia

Although not specifically classified as Sharia, many local governments attempt to implement Sharia-inspired regulations. A 2011 media report indicated that there are more than 150 Sharia-inspired laws in the country. Although these regulations are unevenly enforced and apply only to Muslims, many Muslim scholars and human rights activists claim that these regulations create or increase discrimination against women. In some cases these laws require Muslim women to wear headscarves in public and prevent Muslim women from receiving government services if they are not wearing headscarves. Some local regulations also mandate that elected Muslim officials, students, civil servants, and individuals seeking marriage licenses be able to read the Quran in Arabic and prohibit Muslims from consuming alcohol and gambling. Other regulations prohibit the sale of food and beverages during the day throughout the month of Ramadan and make mandatory the payment of zakat, or alms, for Muslims. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State <>]

During Ramadan, many local governments ordered either the closure or a reduction in operating hours of various entertainment establishments. Several regional governments issued circulars limiting the operating hours of night entertainment venues, cafes, and restaurants during the month of Ramadan. Some of the restaurants chose to close voluntarily while others, if not serving halal food, remained open, often posting a sign that the business was not Muslim-owned. The government implemented Sharia-based regulations in a number of areas. In August the mayor of Gorantolo, Sulawesi refused to allow a civil servant to take his post after the new employee failed to read the Quran in Arabic during his swearing in ceremony. After two months, the civil servant was able to read the Quran in Arabic and assumed his post. <>

Bambang Muryanto wrote in the Jakarta Post, “Sharia bylaws drafted and implemented by several local administrations in the country could be a time bomb with the potential to trigger social conflicts in mixed communities, according to scholars.Syamsul Anwar, a lecturer at the Yogyakarta-based Kalijaga State Islamic University (UIN), called on local administrations to pay attention to content as well as process in drafting their bylaws in order to avoid creating social conflict. “They should be selective in terms of materials to be drafted as regulations. They must concentrate only on the principle,” Syamsul said in Yogyakarta on Thursday. [Source: Bambang Muryanto, Jakarta Post, April 20, 2012 <>]

“Notable lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis suggested some groups had vested interests in initiating the adoption of sharia bylaws. “This could be a time bomb for us all,” he said. Regencies and municipalities in West Sumatra, Banten, West Java and South Sulawesi have issued several sharia-based bylaws in those predominantly Muslim provinces. By early 2010 more than 150 bylaws, regulations and circulars were found to be problematic and discriminative according to the national women’s rights body. <>

“Todung suspected a hidden agenda given the drafting processes, which seemed to curtail public participation and lack academic analysis. He noted as many as 78 sharia bylaws had been issued in 52 regencies/municipalities in the country. “Jurisdiction-wise, religious affairs should be the central government’s domain, not a local issue,” he said, adding that bylaws that contravened major legislation or the Constitution could taint Indonesia’s status as a country where the rule of law was upheld. He expressed hopes that the issue would be addressed more seriously in the future, considering that Indonesia was home to people of many different creeds. The Wahid Institute, in its survey on sharia-inspired bylaws, has discovered that local rules frequently violated the law on regional administration.” <>

See Local Government

Sharia in Aceh

Islamic law has been implemented to a limited degree in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia authorized by national legislation to implement Sharia (Islamic law). In 2001, Aceh adopted a form of Shariah law. In 2003, Aceh courts were granted freedom to use sharia law as part of an autonomy package the central government offered in an effort to quell separatism in the province, where thousands died in a long-running insurgency. Since Aceh adopted sharia in 2001, the province has implemented four qanun (Islamic bylaws) including one on Islamic propagation, one on khalwat — a bylaw where unmarried couples are punished for being in close proximity — one on alcoholic beverages and one on gambling. In 2009, Qanun Jinayat, a set of bylaws that replaces elements of the Criminal Code with sharia provisions for Muslims, was endorsed by the Aceh Legislative Council.

As of 2012, Ace had issued 54 sharia bylaws or qanun. The laws regulate women's dress and public morality, require shops and other places to close at prayer time. According to Associated Press: “It is unclear how popular the sharia provisions are with locals in Aceh, which is devout by Indonesian standards but not to the extent of parts of Pakistan or the Middle East. Enforcement of the laws is patchy and mostly targets young men and women. Caning, when applied, is typically aimed at causing humiliation rather than pain.” [Source: Associated Press, January 7, 2013 <^>]

Presidential Decree 11/2003 formally allows for the implementation of Sharia law and established Sharia courts in Aceh. Subsequently, the provincial government passed three Sharia laws, one governing relations between members of the opposite sex and two others banning alcohol consumption and gambling. Until 2014, non-Muslims were specifically exempted but new legislation was passed that year that stated non-Muslims were not exempt. The penalty for more serious violations of Sharia can include caning. Persons subject to caning in Aceh are fully clothed--sometimes with several layers of clothes. There are also regulations effectively limiting the amount of force that may be applied during a caning. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State <>]

The Economist reported: Aceh, at the far west of the Indonesian archipelago, is proud of its reputation for piety. In 2001 it became the only province in Indonesia authorised to introduce sharia Islamic law as part of “special autonomy” aimed at ending a long-running separatist war. The provincial parliament passed laws against drinking, gambling and “seclusion”—being alone with someone from the other sex. An Islamic police force modelled on Iran’s “vice and virtue” patrols started to round up women for not covering their heads or for wearing trousers that were too tight. The first public caning took place in 2005. Now Aceh has taken another controversial step, by telling everyone to follow sharia—Muslim and non-Muslim alike. [Source: The Economist, February 15, 2014 */*]

“This all follows from a criminal code which Aceh’s outgoing parliament passed back in 2009, increasing the number of offences under sharia and introducing much stiffer penalties, such as death by stoning for adulterers. Aceh’s then governor, Irwandi Yusuf, refused to sign the code. But in December the present governor, Zaini Abdullah, signed into law a revised version. This month the local authorities sent it to Jakarta, the capital, for approval. Although legislators watered down the original code—dropping the death-by-stoning penalty, for example—they insist it must be followed by everyone in Aceh, regardless of religion. Non-Muslims who are charged with offences not criminalised by national laws will be tried by sharia courts. */*

“Aceh is a far cry from, say, the Taliban’s brutish former rule in Afghanistan. Amnesty International counted at least 45 canings in 2012—still relatively few in a province of 5m. And those flogged in Aceh are fully clothed, providing them with some protection. But the province is enforcing sharia more strictly as religious conservatives become more powerful, says Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. Meanwhile, town mayors and district chiefs are passing more sharia by-laws, which often discriminate against women. Religious minorities face growing persecution, too. */*

Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh

According to the International Crisis Group: Aceh is the only part of Indonesia that has the legal right to apply Islamic law (Shari’a) in full. Since 1999, it has begun slowly to put in place an institutional framework for Shari’a enforcement. Islamic courts in Aceh had long handled cases of marriage, divorce and inheritance. The breakthrough in terms of greater application came after special autonomy legislation was passed in 2001, which gave the courts a green light to extend their reach into criminal justice. It was at this point that serious issues of legal dualism emerged, with no clear line between what the division of labour would be between the regular state courts and Shari’a courts. The question of law enforcement was even murkier. The wilayatul hisbah, the “vice and virtue patrol” was set up and its role has been gradually expanding much to the unhappiness of the police. [Source: International Crisis Group, July 31, 2006 \=\]

“In the process, Aceh is addressing hard questions: What aspects should be enforced first? Should existing police, prosecutors and courts be used or new entities created? How should violations be punished? Its efforts to find the answers are being watched closely by other local governments, some of which have enacted regulations inspired by or derived from Shari’a. These moves in turn are sparking a raging debate in Indonesia about what role government at any level should play in encouraging adherence to Islamic law and how far the Islamisation drive will or should be allowed to spread. \=\

“A number of practical problems emerged as Aceh tried to enforce the first three Shari’a regulations passed by the district government: criminalising consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages; gambling; and illicit relations between men and women and the government instituted caning as a punishment for all three. \=\

Sharia police in Aceh continued to monitor compliance with Sharia regulations, although the level of police activity varied among districts. In September 2011, Sharia police arrested four teenagers, two girls and two boys, for violating the prohibition against unmarried males and females being in close proximity to one another. The four were reportedly sitting together in a park after curfew. Following the arrest, local media printed allegations by the Sharia police that the teenage girls were prostitutes -- charges that the girls’ families and supporters denied. On September 6, one of the girls committed suicide. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State <>]

Aceh Fully Enforces Sharia on Non-Muslims

In 2014, Aceh authorities began fully enforcing sharia on everyone in Aceh Province, including non-Muslims. Hotli Simanjuntak and Ina Parlina wrote in The Jakarta Post, “Without much fanfare, the Aceh provincial administration and legislative council have approved the Qanun Jinayat (behavior-governing bylaw) that obliges every Muslim and non-Muslim in Aceh to follow sharia, the Islamic legal code. “The qanun does indeed oblige everyone in Aceh to follow sharia without exception,” councilor Abdulah Saleh, who was involved in the deliberation of the qanun in the council, confirmed on Thursday. The Qanun Jinayat was approved by the legislative council on Dec. 13 and signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. It was a revision of the controversial 2009 Qanun Jinayat that introduced the punishment of stoning to death. [Source: Hotli Simanjuntak and Ina Parlina, The Jakarta Post, February 7 2014 ^^]

“Saleh said that the newly approved qanun stipulated that all violators of sharia would be tried under Islamic law regardless of their religion. Non-Muslim violators of the Criminal Code (KUHP) would be given the option to choose between a sharia court or a regular court, he explained. “But, if the violation committed by a non-Muslim is not regulated in the KUHP then the violator will automatically be tried in a sharia court, without exception,” Saleh said. Violations of sharia that are not mentioned in the KUHP include drinking liquor, khalwat (affectionate contact between an unmarried couple), and not wearing headscarf or wearing tight pants by women. ^^

“Anyone found drinking alcohol or breaching the codes on moral behavior, whether residents or visitors to Aceh, could face between six and nine lashes of the cane. After the announcement of the law changes, the Aceh sharia police stopped motorists but let non-Muslim women go after advising them to wear a headscarf. Three violations of the dress code could lead to nine lashes. The qanun also applies to military personnel as long as the military court does not regulate sharia violations. ^^

Saleh argued that the passing of the qanun was based on the principle of justice for all as Muslims would feel they were being treated unfairly if non-Muslim violators were not tried under the same law for the same violations. “It would be unfair if Muslims were punished while non-Muslims were not, just because sharia violations are not stipulated in the Criminal Code,” Saleh said. ^^

Meanwhile, a Banda Aceh resident opposed the qanun. “I’m of Chinese descent and not a Muslim, why should I obey Islamic teachings? As far as I know the headscarf is for Muslim women,” said the man, a Buddhist, who declined to be identified.Legal observer and social scientist at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, Saifuddin Bantasyam, said that although he had not yet read the Qanun Jinayat in detail, he thought that it would be awkward if Islamic law was applied to non-Muslims regardless of whether the violation was categorized as a sharia violation. “If that was the case then we have to see first whether the qanun is implemented using the principle of individuality or the principle of territoriality,” Saifuddin said.

If based on the principle of individuality, he said, then Islamic law applied only to Muslims. If based on the principle of territoriality, then whoever was in Aceh would have to follow Islamic law just as it is implemented in Arab and sharia-based Islamic countries.

Key articles in the Qanun Jinayat: 1) The sharia authorities will have the power to arrest suspected violators, and confiscate and conduct raids on their property, based on preliminary evidence. 2) The authorities will have the power to detain a violator for up to 30 days prior to trial. This detention can be extended by another 30 days. 3) A suspect has the right to be defended by a lawyer. 4) Non-Muslim or military suspects will be tried in a sharia court unless the violation is covered by the Criminal Code (KUHP) or by the Military Code respectively. 5) Even if the sharia court acquits a defendant, he or she will be required to undergo rehabilitation. 6) Only one appeal may be filed with the sharia court. 7) Prison terms are for up to a maximum of 40 months. 8) Caning up to a maximum to 40 lashes. 9) Fines up to a maximum of 800 grams of gold. [Source: Aceh provincial administration]

Politics Behind Sharia in Aceh

“Forcing Christians and followers of other non-Muslim faiths to abide by sharia seems to fly in the face of Islamic teachings. Even the secretary-general of Aceh’s own clerics association, Faisal Ali, says it shows that legislators have a poor understanding of Islam. Moreover, the code seems at odds with Indonesia’s constitutionally enshrined precept of “unity in diversity”. The 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion for six officially recognised faiths. [Source: The Economist, February 15, 2014 */*]

“Politics as much as religious conviction plays its part. Indonesia holds a parliamentary election in April and a presidential one in July. The five-year term of Aceh’s own parliament also ends this year. Mr Abdullah and local legislators may hope to consolidate their positions by presenting themselves as pious Muslims standing up to Jakarta, the old adversary in Aceh’s separatist struggle which ended in 2005. It would not be the first time that politicians have exploited religion for their own worldly ends.” */*

According to the International Crisis Group: Shari’a officials in Aceh deeply believe that strict enforcement will facilitate broader goals like peace, reconstruction and reconciliation, there are other dynamics at work. The focus on morality seems to have become an end in itself. The religious bureaucracy has a vested interest in its own expansion. The zeal shown by the vice and virtue patrol in enforcing the regulations has encouraged a report-on-your-neighbour process and a kind of moral vigilantism. Women and the poor have become the primary targets of enforcement. [Source: International Crisis Group, July 31, 2006]

Aceh’s First Public Canings under Muslim Law

In June 2005, Aceh carried out its first public canings, punishing 15 gamblers in front of a noisy crowd. Reuters reported: “All 15 men, including one in his 60s, were sentenced months ago for gambling, some with sums less than $1, by a sharia court in the town of Bireuen. Caning is a common judicial practice in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, but is not carried out in public. [Source: Reuters, June 24, 2005 \^/]

“The canings, the subject of considerable debate in Indonesia, began after Friday midday prayers on a raised platform in front of the town's elaborate grand mosque with its large black domes. "The canings can be a cure for gamblers. The defendants and their family should not be ashamed because they are helping us to ... give lessons to the public," the chief of Aceh's sharia court, Alyasa Abubakar, told the crowd of around 2,000 people. \^/

“Each of the condemned was clad in a white tunic and received between six and eight strokes across the back. The caning was delivered by a man in a light green robe with only his eyes visible. At times, the crowd cheered and howled when the one-metre rattan stick struck, the strokes carefully measured not to break the skin. Several Indonesian television and radio stations aired the punishment live. Not all were in favour of canings. Jakarta-based rights groups in Indonesia criticised them as cruel. Callers to a Jakarta radio station also condemned the spectacle. \^/

Aceh Under Islamic Law

In Aceh drinking alcohol and gambling are outlawed and headscarves are obligatory for women. Sharia police regularly patrol the cities looking for women who do not cover their heads and unmarried couples socialising at beaches. People have been caned in public mainly for gambling offences.

Reporting from Banda Aceh in 2006, a year and a half after it was struck by the devasating tsunami, Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Across this most religious of Indonesia’s provinces, brown uniformed policemen in black wagons enforce Shariah, or Islamic law. They haul unmarried couples into precincts and arrest people for drinking or gambling. Increasingly, many of the cases are pushed to the ultimate conclusion, public canings at mosques in front of pumped-up crowds. In July 2006, a 27-year-old man sentenced to 40 lashes fainted on the seventh stroke of a rattan cane from a hooded man in the yard of a mosque here in the provincial capital. The caning was televised nationally, with an announcer reporting that the man, who had been arrested for drinking at a beachside stall, would receive the remainder of his punishment once he had recovered. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, August 1, 2006 ^*^]

At the municipal office of the Shariah police in Banda Aceh, Nasir Illyas, the director of administration, defended the style of punishment, proudly showing off the nearly three-foot-long rattan rod — with a curved handle for a better grip — that he keeps near his desk. The rules are fair, he said as he itemized the following particulars from a manual: a minimum of about two and half feet between the person who canes and the defendant; the cane is applied from the left side; onlookers are at least 10 yards away. ^*^

“Mr. Illyas, who sits under a portrait of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said the Shariah laws were the “wish” of the people. The laws should be extended to non-Muslims, too, he said, a move that would place Aceh in the same ranks as Saudi Arabia. In mid-July, an Italian aid worker was arrested by the Shariah police for being with an Acehnese woman late at night. It was the second arrest of a foreign aid worker and an Acehnese person of the opposite sex in the last several months. ^*^

Objections by Women to Sharia in Aceh

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “In Aceh itself, the way the new laws are being enforced has aroused some opposition, especially among women. Often, they say, an arrest by overeager Shariah police officers, many of them men in their 20’s and 30’s, seems orchestrated as a punishment unto itself. When three activists, all women, chatting in the seclusion of a hotel corridor after a long day of meetings, were shoved into an open police van in February for not wearing their head scarves, the police paraded them before a throng of men. “We believed we were in our personal space, and they broke into our personal space,” said Nursyamsiah, 41, the head of the Acehnese Women’s Empowerment Group, who recounted sitting on a sofa in the hotel where they had been staying after a United Nations-sponsored seminar on women’s rights. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, August 1, 2006 ^*^]

“About 11 p.m. the Shariah police burst in, demanding to know why they were in a hotel at such an hour. “They made sure people were laughing and booing at us as they took us to the mayor’s office,” she said. In a ruling that has enraged women’s groups, an elementary school teacher, a married woman in her 30s, was sentenced on July 21 to caning for working in the headquarters of a political party on a Sunday afternoon at the same time as the party leader, who was not her husband. “They were two people working in different rooms. How can she get punished?” asked Fatimahsyam, the head of the women’s branch of the legal aid society in Lhoksemawe, Aceh’s second biggest city. ^*^

“It is not easy, the women’s groups say, to question the Shariah laws for fear of being considered an unfaithful Muslim. The women’s groups are careful not to criticize the existence of the laws themselves, but rather the method of enforcement. Curiously, Mrs. Nursyamsiah, who was arrested here, is a civil servant assigned to the Shariah offices in Lhangsia, in southern Aceh. There she has watched the introduction of the new laws up close. A new force of 75 Shariah police officers — 70 men, 5 women — is being trained, she said. The system of Shariah laws, she said, represents a form of politics as usual, a way of fattening the payroll. “By applying Shariah law, the governor, the political elites, get more money for police, more courts,” she said. “We’ve opened a new section of government to look after Shariah.” What also rankled her, she said, was the fact that the laws on drinking, gambling and relations between men and women tended to affect poor people the most. “Why,” she asked, “have they not introduced the Shariah laws on corruption? Stealing in Islam is a bigger sin than these small sins.” ^*^

“For some, the enforcement of Shariah laws is upsetting the ideal of a new Aceh as an open society. The director of the agency responsible for rebuilding the tsunami-ravaged province, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, is a graduate of Stanford University, and a well-traveled government official from the capital, Jakarta. But to remind visitors that Aceh was once a bustling entrepôt, he keeps a turn-of-the-20th-century photograph of Sabang port, the main entry point to Aceh, on his wall. It would be impolitic for Mr. Kuntoro to speak out against the Shariah laws, but the message of the photo, and a remark to a visitor that Sabang once rivaled Hong Kong, is clear. “ ^*^

Indonesia's Aceh Passes Stoning Law

In September 2009, legislators in Indonesia's Aceh province unanimously approved a law allowing adulterers to be stoned to death in addition to stipulating a maximum of 40 lashes or 40 months in jail for drinking alcoholic beverages and 60 lashes or a fine of 60 grams of pure gold or 60 months in jail for sexual harassment. Under the guidelines, the Sharia police could even raid hotel rooms in search of violators, develop informants and work undercover.

Al-Jazeera reported: “The regional parliament for the devoutly Muslim province passed the "qanun jinayat", or sharia law for crimes, also allowing for homosexuality to be punishable by long prison terms and people caught having pre-marital sex to receive 100 strokes with a cane. Opponents and supporters of the law demonstrated outside parliament. All members of the 69-seat house voted for the bill, although some moderate Democrat Party parliamentarians earlier voiced opposition to it. [Source: Al-Jazeera, September 14, 2009 /*\]

“The bill has been heavily criticised by human rights groups who have said that stoning people to death violates international conventions to which Indonesia is a signatory. Destika Gilang Lestari, a human rights activist, said: "There are much more important sharia laws we need, for example against corruption. Why is there no rule against corruption? Why do they only look into peoples private lives?" /*\

The law was passed two weeks before a new, more moderate, parliament is to be sworn in, replacing conservative Muslim parties following an election defeat. Some analysts have said that this will lead to the law being toned down. "The local leadership doesn’t support it but there is a lot of pressure from Islamic groups. And the people of Aceh are divided and caught in the middle. Out of 52 Muslim-majority countries worldwide, stoning is legally sanctioned in varying forms in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and parts of Nigeria.

Aceh Government Removes Stoning Sentence From Draft Bylaw

In March 2013, the Aceh government removed a provision for the stoning to death of adulterers from its draft of bylaws which was endorsed by the Aceh Legislative Council in 2009. Nurdin Hasan wrote in the Jakarta Globe, “Syahrizal Abbas, head of the Aceh Islamic Shariah Agency, said that the government would discuss the Qanun Jinayat and the Qanun Acara Jinayat, the criminal code procedure bylaw, with ulema, academics and other related stakeholders to perfect the bylaw of which they had all agreed to revoke the stoning sentence. [Source: Nurdin Hasan, Jakarta Globe, March 12, 2013]

The former Aceh governor, Irwandi Yusuf, had refused to sign the draft bylaw because he was against the stoning and human rights activists also opposed the bylaws. The draft qanun also stipulates a sentence for rapists, molestation, homosexuals, with offenders sentenced to a jail term, a maximum of 200 cane strokes and a fine. Syahrizal said that he expected the bylaw — with alternate sanctions of caning, imprisonment and fines — would improve the behavior of people in Aceh. He added that offenders would not be caned as long as they could still be educated. “That’s why we expect an improvement of the judges quality in terms of ability, knowledge and sensitivity under psychological reasons behind someone who violated the Qanun Jinayat,” Syahrizal said.

Aceh's Vice and Virtue Squad in Action

Aceh has a 1,500-member morality police force whose job it seems is scold women who not properly covered and seek out couples displaying too much affection in public. Reporting from Banda Aceh, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The young couple are totally busted. They huddle at a beach-side park, near signs forbidding teens from sitting too close. He has his arm around her shoulder. She isn't wearing her jilbab, the traditional Islamic head scarf. Just like that, the morality cops are in their face. "You two aren't married, right?" asks Syafruddin, the rail-thin leader of the six-man patrol, standing stiffly, one hand behind his back. "So you shouldn't sit next to one another."He separates the two and confiscates their IDs. Later, he says, the team will open an investigation of the couple, especially because the young man had lied, at first insisting the girl was his sister. "We want to see how far this relationship has progressed," says Syafruddin, who goes by one name. "What they were doing could have led to something sexual." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2009 <*>]

“The team is known as "the vice and virtue patrol," on the beat in Aceh. The Sharia police consider themselves the community's public conscience. And on their weekly patrol, they take seriously their role of enforcing the religious strictures. "We know many foreigners and some Indonesians do not understand this," says Marzuki Abdullah, commander of the 1,500-member Sharia force. "But Muslims must obey the law. They must go to prayer, do their fasting. Women should dress in an acceptable way. "Our job is to make sure that they do." <*>

Aceh women’s rights activist Norma Manalu “dismisses the Sharia police, who she believes enjoy harassing young women. "Men make these rules based on some misguided image of how women should look," she says. "Here in Aceh, women must accept it or suffer harassment." A mile away, at religious police headquarters, Abdullah dismisses the uproar. Since 2003, he says, only nine people have been caned in Aceh. "Men take their lashes like the women," he says. "They're equal." <*>

“Abdullah is angered each time he sees couples holding hands or a woman without a veil. He favors a proposed ordinance in one Aceh area that would ban women from wearing pants. "Most pants are too tight," he says. "They show the curves of a woman's body. With many you can see the shadow of the vagina." But the religious thought police know they cannot fight television, the racy shows broadcast from Malaysia and Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.As Abdullah speaks, an office TV shows a shampoo ad featuring a woman in a towel, caressing her long black hair.Aceh's top morality cop pauses in mid-sentence. He blushes, then catches himself and scoffs. <*>

“The morality cops are on the move. They crouch in military formation, closing in on their prey. Beneath a row of gracefully bending palms, they've spotted several shady characters at a lonely beachside youth hangout. They could be unmarried young men cavorting with girls not wearing a proper jilbab. They could be holding hands, kissing or, well, who knows what. Waves breaking at their feet, the officers round a rocky promontory. They confront six baffled men casting nets into the water. "They were just fishing," says a disappointed Syafruddin. And so it goes. All afternoon, they chase down suspects, like the college girls caught without their jilbabs. <*>

“As Syafruddin launches into his lecture, a woman wearing a black T-shirt reading "Lucky Girl" examines her shoes. "For women," the officer says, "wearing a veil is like a motorcycle rider wearing a helmet. It's for your own protection." When the police move on, the woman shrugs. "I wear a veil at work," she says. "I didn't think it mattered here. It's the beach." Within moments, the team stops three girls on a motorcycle, all wearing veils. This time, Syafruddin has another problem. Their leggings are too tight, too revealing, he says. They should go home and change them at once. He walks off in search of other laws to enforce. The girls climb back aboard the motorcycle, looking embarrassed. One patrolman lingers for a moment. He smiles at the girls. And then he winks.” <*>

Aceh Ban Women from Straddling Motorbikes

In 2013, authorities Aceh began taking steps to impose a law that would ban female passengers from straddling motorbikes. Associated Press reported: Authorities in northern Aceh distributed a notice to government offices and villages informing residents of the proposed law, which would apply to adolescent girls and women. It states that women are not allowed to straddle motorbikes other than in an "emergency", and are not allowed to hold on to the driver. [Source: Associated Press, January 7, 2013 <^>]

“Suaidi Yahya, mayor of the Aceh city of Lhokseumawe, said a ban was needed because the "curves of a woman's body" are more visible when straddling a motorbike than when sitting sideways with legs dangling. "Muslim women are not allowed to show their curves, it's against Islamic teachings," he said, declining to give details of what the punishment would be for violators. Home ministry officials said they would try to block the law because it was discriminatory. <^>

“While rare in the west, riding side-saddle on a motorbike is common in much of south-east Asia, particularly for women wearing skirts. Nurjanah Ismail, a lecturer on gender issues at the Ar Raniry Islamic Institute in Aceh's capital, Banda Aceh, criticised the proposed law. "There is no need to question this practice, let alone regulate it, because people do it for safety," she said. "Women sitting in that way cannot be considered bad or in violation of sharia. Islam is beautiful, so do not make it difficult."” <^>

Impact of Aceh’s Sharia Laws on Indonesia

Indonesians are wondering if Aceh will become a testing ground for sharia laws where caning people will common practice or whether Aceh will always be the exception to the rest of the country. Since 2005, many other regions in Indonesia have issued sharia-inspired bylaws that ban such things as alcohol or tight clothing. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government, which relied on the support of Muslim political parties, was largely silent on the proposals.

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “For centuries Indonesia has been known for the open-minded, sometimes freewheeling, interpretation of its dominant religion. That is changing as moderate Muslims find themselves under siege from more orthodox proponents, and as the moderates are hesitant to push back. Aceh, where Islam has always been more rigorously observed, is the first of Indonesia’s 33 provinces to put Shariah law onto the books. Special Shariah courts established to mete out punishments have been operating for a year. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, August 1, 2006 ^*^]

“Now, some of Indonesia’s other provincial governments are looking to Aceh as a model for how they might more formalize Shariah laws already on the books. More than a score of townships across Indonesia have introduced Shariah-like laws that fall short of the precision of the religious laws here. ^*^

“The 1945 Indonesian Constitution is generally considered a secular document. But in a signal of the current mood in Indonesia, leading politicians have recently refrained from criticizing Aceh’s new laws. Indeed, the laws were written in 2003, and had been made possible by the national government as a special gesture to the province, which for years suffered through separatist unrest.: ^*^

Atheism and Blasphemy Laws in Indonesia

In April 2010, the Constitutional Court upheld the 1965 Blasphemy Law, holding that the government maintains the power to impose limitations on religious freedoms based upon security considerations. The law provides for a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. NGOs have reported an increase in the government’s application of the blasphemy law. In 2012, the government convicted 10 people under the law, up from four in 2011. According to NGO reports, since the blasphemy law was passed in 1965, the government has used it to convict 38 individuals of crimes related to blasphemy. More than half of all convictions under this law have occurred since 2009. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State]

In July 2012, the Sampang District Court sentenced Shia cleric Tajul Muluk to two years in prison for blasphemy following the issuance of a fatwa by a local Islamic clerical council that called his teaching deviant and Shia Islam heretical. Following an appeal by Muluk in September, the sentence was extended to four years. Among other offenses, the judges found Muluk guilty of telling his followers they did not need to pray five times each day. Antonius Richmond Bawengan, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for blasphemy in February 2011, remained in prison at year’s end.

Atheism came under increased scrutiny during the year after the arrest and conviction of an atheist for allegedly inciting religious hatred with a posting on Facebook. On June 14, a court sentenced civil servant Alexander Aan to 30 months in prison for posting atheist statements and material that a local council of Muslim clerics deemed blasphemous on his Facebook page. Aan was convicted of violating the Information and Electronic Transaction Law, which forbids disseminating information designed to spread hatred toward or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or race. Following his conviction, Aan publicly renounced atheism and reportedly converted (back) to Islam. At year’s end he remained in prison.

In April 2010, Human Rights Watch reported: “Indonesia's Constitutional Court dealt a severe blow to religious freedom by upholding a controversial law prohibiting "blasphemy." The court, in an 8-1 decision on April 19, 2010, ruled that the blasphemy law, which provides criminal penalties for those who express religious beliefs that deviate from the central tenets of the six officially recognized religions, is a lawful restriction of minority religious beliefs because it allows for the maintenance of public order. "The Constitutional Court's decision on the blasphemy law poses a real threat to the beliefs of Indonesia's religious minorities," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. [Source: Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2010 ~~]

“The constitutional challenge to the blasphemy law was filed in October 2009 by a group of Indonesian nongovernmental organizations and individuals led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, a longtime Muslim supporter of religious freedom and tolerance. The petitioners argued that the law violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression and Indonesia's obligations under international human rights treaties. Indonesia's blasphemy law, article 156a of the Indonesian criminal code, punishes deviations from the central tenets of the six officially recognized religions with up to five years in prison. It is based on a 1965 government regulation, issued by then-President Sukarno, which declared that five religions were officially recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Confucianism was added to this list in 1998.” ~~

Indonesia’s Blasphemy Laws used Against Minorities

According to Human Rights Watch: The blasphemy law has been used to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities and of traditional religions. In 2006, a Jakarta court sentenced three leaders of a spiritual movement called the Eden Community - Lia Eden, M. Abdul Rachman, and Wahyu Andito Putro Wibisono - to prison terms of two to three years for violating the blasphemy law. Others prosecuted under the law include members of the many traditional religions practiced in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, and other parts of Indonesia. "The blasphemy law criminalizes the peaceful expression of certain religious beliefs," Pearson said. "It hangs like a ‘Sword of Damocles' over the heads of religious minorities and those who practice traditional religions." [Source: Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2010 ~~]

“The blasphemy law also serves as the legal basis for a number of government regulations that facilitate official discrimination on the basis of religion. These include a June 2008 government decree that ordered members of the Ahmadiyah religious community to cease all public religious activities on the grounds that they deviated from the principal teachings of Islam and threatened violators with up to five years in prison. The decree was issued in the aftermath of a violent attack on June 1, 2008, by more than 500 Islamist militants on a group of peaceful demonstrators supporting religious pluralism. More than 60 demonstrators were wounded by the group, who called themselves the Islam Troop Command, and several Ahmadiyah members were hospitalized.” ~~

Arghea Desafti Hapsari wrote in the Jakarta Post, Religious minorities have expressed their support for a group of NGOs that have requested the 1965 Blasphemy Law be reviewed, saying the controversial law is outdated and irrelevant to a democratic Indonesia.“Our society has matured since the law was first established in 1965. Civil society at that time was weak and that is why such laws were put in place and the guided democracy system was used,” PGI secretary-general Gomar Gultom told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday. “But in the Reform era, Indonesians no longer wanted to be ordered around by the state,” he added. [Source: Arghea Desafti Hapsari, Jakarta Post, February 4 2010 |=|]

Under the law, the government also has the authority to charge leaders and followers of suspected heretical groups. Article 1 of the law stipulates that it is illegal to “intentionally publicize, recommend or organize public support for a different interpretation of a religion practiced in Indonesia or a religious ritual resembling that of another religion”. It is also states that “practising an interpretation of a religion that deviates from the core of that religion’s teachings” is illegal. |=|

The 1965 law, he explained, had allowed the state to interfere in what should be a private and religious domain.“Blasphemous acts should be solved by strengthening the faith of each religion’s followers. Blasphemy will always occur; different interpretations are something we can not avoid. But we have to see this as criticism of religious institutions. Their leaders might not care about their followers enough, or they might not have done their jobs well enough to maintain their followers’ faith in their religions,” he said.” |=|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.