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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.


Shariah law: Aceh’s morality police seek greater power

Muslims across Indonesia are watching Aceh closely.

a bid to transform Aceh back into an independent Islamic state.

“Aceh had Shariah for centuries,” Khalidin said. “We just wanted our lifestyle back.”

In 2001, hoping to satiate Islamists sympathetic to the rebellion, Indonesia permitted the province to restore Shariah law. “It was huge,” said Tabrani Yunis, director of the Center for Community Development and Education, a Banda Aceh-based non-profit. “It was something like euphoria.”

But the euphoria, he said, has faded. Few Acehnese dare criticize Shariah itself, he said, but many feel Shariah police bully the defenseless and allow the rich to freely indulge in sin. Some of Aceh’s higher-end hotels are known to serve alcohol — a crime punishable by 40 lashes — with impunity.

“Shariah is not the problem,” Tabrani said. “The problem is implementation.”

Shariah cops’ lopsided justice is a common refrain among human rights groups. “Women and the poor have become the primary targets of enforcement” in Aceh, according to the International Crisis Group.

Human Rights Watch contends that penalties are “rarely, if ever, applied to wealthy or politically-connected individuals.”

Ira Wati, a 23-year-old female office worker in Banda Aceh, said this imbalance is accepted as fact among Aceh’s women. “High-class women are untouchable. Lower-class women are the victims,” she said. “A high society person being punished? Forget it.”

Shariah lite

Still, compared with Shariah enforcement in Islam’s birthplace, the Middle East, Aceh’s Shariah is mild.

In Persian Gulf states, and even in nearby Malaysia, canings leave buttocks shredded to a bloody pulp. Aceh’s canings, overseen by Shariah cops in lime-green robes, are less violent and allow the punished to wear pants.

The caners don’t wind their caning arm all the way back to inflict maximum damage, said Khalidin, demonstrating the proper half-cocked caning swing in his office. “It’s not about pain,” he said. “It’s about humiliation.” His tone suggests caning is akin to a nun rapping a naughty pupil’s knuckles with a ruler.

Again, though, it is important to note that even the infamous canings don't occur as often as many believe. Local media reports suggest that fewer than 50 were caned in 2011; Amnesty International counted 16 in 2010. When a lesbian couple was discovered living together last year, they were forcibly separated and forbidden to reunite. But they were not flogged or imprisoned.

Foreign, non-Muslim women, Khalidin added, can freely roam without "jilbabs" (headscarves that fully conceal the hair) and play on Aceh’s tawny beaches wearing T-shirts and shorts. “In fact,” he said, “if you ever see my officers bothering tourists in shorts, come complain directly to me.”

Even Acehnese women commonly walk the streets in slim-fit jeans in defiance of morality police. Come evenings, teenage girls fill the coffee shops, batting eyes with boys in a way that suggests they are not siblings. In his book “Monsoon,” historian and journalist Robert D. Kaplan recently mused that “Aceh, although the most Arabian of the Indonesian regions, completely lacks the hard atmospheric edge of the Middle East.”

For now.

Aceh’s influential Muslim scholars lament that the province still lacks “full Shariah” or “pure Shariah.” Total adherence to Quranic law, they insist, is the true fix to society’s ills.

“It’s obvious to all that Shariah here is incomplete,” said Faizal Ali, secretary of the Aceh Ulama Association, a sect of religious scholars that guides Islamic law.

“People still think it’s just about praying or going to the mosque. No, no, Shariah must be everywhere, in everything, throughout government and the foundation of education,” he said.

In other words, they would like Aceh’s Shariah to more closely mimic that of Saudi Arabia. Faizal and other conservatives have proclaimed that, eventually, amputations for theft should be allowed in Aceh.

This demand is echoed by a strain of puritanical youth who fear Aceh is sliding towards foul modernity. “We don’t want to behave like Western countries where there’s lots of free sex,” said Muhammed Muaz Mumauwar, 27, head of Aceh’s National Front of Indonesian Muslim Students.

“We worry about diseases such as HIV,” he said. “What if what’s happening in Africa starts happening over here?” He is equally dismayed by the young, Muslim punk rockers who’ve started begging in Banda Aceh’s streets and sleeping in its parks.

“They stink. Their hair dye contains alcohol, which is haram [forbidden],” the youth group leader said. “You might think they’re cool. We think they’re scary.”

If Aceh’s current ruling party wins February elections as predicted, the Shariah police are likely to receive broader powers. As it stands, the Wilayatul Hisbah can detain suspects for only 24 hours while courts assess their crimes and process their cases further. But a proposal would give the Shariah police more officers and the right to further detain and process suspects so that the Wilayatul Hisbah would more fully resemble a traditional police force.

Muslims across Indonesia are watching closely. Few expect other stretches of Indonesia to become as strict as Aceh. But what some academics call the “Saudization” of Aceh could inspire other stretches of Indonesia to enact more laws modeled on Aceh’s version of Shariah.

“I’m not saying it’s necessary for other parts of Indonesia to apply our system. But if they want it, we’re here to provide guidance,” Khalidin said. “We’re not out to scare anyone. We just want pure Shariah.”