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Street punks, tsunami orphans and the creeping reach of Shariah law. Journey to the shores of Aceh, a hard-core Muslim corner of Indonesia, seven years after Mother Nature came crashing down.

Aceh shariah law islamic 2012 02 06
A masked person canes Indonesian food seller Murni Amris for violating Islamic Shariah law outside a mosque in Jantho, Aceh province, Oct. 1, 2010. (Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images)

Shariah law: Aceh’s morality police seek greater power

Muslims across Indonesia are watching Aceh closely.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The chief of Aceh’s Islamic police force knows that many outsiders see his vice-and-virtue patrols as menacing and overbearing.

But why?

Khalidin, smoking back-to-back clove cigarettes in his office, appears genuinely puzzled. The broad-shouldered enforcer of Quran-based Shariah law in Indonesia’s Aceh province insists he and his 1,250-person squadron are perfectly affable.

“Take me for example. I’m not harsh at all,” Khalidin said. “I once had a female tourist stay in our home. An Australian. We made friends. I gave her a place to stay, free food. But no kiss kissy!” said the chief, chuckling hard at his own joke.

Aceh’s penalty for premarital “kiss kissy,” however, is deadly serious. As of 2009, adulterers can be legally stoned. The existence of such extreme punishments for out-of-wedlock canoodling and other worldly pleasures are the source of Aceh’s reputation — though whether they are doled out as such is quite another matter.

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It does happen. In Aceh, gambling, boozing and premarital hand-holding is punishable by canings, on stage, in front of a mosque. Girls in tight jeans, guilty of revealing their curves, receive lectures on female piety from Shariah police officers in front of their neighbors.

But despite the harsh codes on Aceh's books — stoning, 100 lashes for homosexuality — the laws are seldom applied with full force. A stoning has yet to take place. 

Still, Aceh’s Shariah police are poised to gain even more power in seeking out and reprimanding the wicked. Local politicians, having decided tough Shariah plays well at the polls, hope to give Khalidin’s force even more authority.

“We want them to be stronger, not weaker,” said Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, vice mayor of the provincial capital Banda Aceh. Strengthening the Shariah police is a core agenda item for her political party, which is seeking re-election in February. “The Shariah police must be reinforced.”

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But the Shariah enforcement in Aceh, arguably the most fervently Islamic pocket of Southeast Asia, has ripple effects far outside its borders.

Six years after Aceh first rolled out its vice-and-virtue police, officially titled the “Wilayatul Hisbah,” Shariah diehards and skeptics are monitoring the province’s morality cops closely.

Conservatives across Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, eye Aceh with envy. No other province in the otherwise secular nation has been allowed to set up a Shariah police force. Still, more than 50 local governments have followed Aceh in installing Shariah-based laws.

Human rights watchdog groups, however, cry that Aceh’s Shariah police have gone too far.

Couples caught alone and unsupervised, according to Human Rights Watch, have been coerced into marriage. Girls under investigation endure virginity exams. Gay rights don’t exist: Khalidin’s Shariah police chief predecessor, Muddasir, told Reuters last year that “in the prophet’s book, people committing (the crime of lesbian coupling) should be beheaded or thrown into the sea, but we don’t have that in our regulations.”

Both Shariah advocates and critics say that, if offered a referendum, the people of Aceh would side with their vision of right and wrong. But no such poll has taken place, leaving Khalidin to speculate that “if Aceh voted, 90 percent would support Shariah.”

The remaining 10 percent? “Bad people,” he said. “Drunks.”

Piety pedigree

No one questions the depth of Aceh’s Islamic pedigree.

As early as the 12th century, Muslim traders came to Aceh’s coast, which juts like a thumb into the Indian Ocean. Historians believe that, with monsoon winds at their sails, seafaring merchants could travel to Aceh from the Persian Gulf in just 70 days. Visits from the Middle East were frequent and Acehnese rulers were among the first in Southeast Asia to adopt the Islamic faith.

By the 16th century, Aceh’s sultanates were considered cosmopolitan and mighty. According to French historian Denys Lombard, one of Aceh’s reigning kingdoms could summon armed galleys backed by 40,000 soldiers and 900 war elephants.

But what the Acehnese consider their golden age was later undone by a less-welcome wave of foreigners.

Dutch colonialists’ 18th-century invasion and, later, occupation by Indonesian troops fighting to stop Aceh from seceding, is seen by many Acehnese as a disruption to their natural state: governance under Islamic law. From the 1970s to 2005, guerilla insurgents battled Indonesian soldiers in