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Exploring Aceh’s Islamic Turn Through it’s Contradictions - Part I



Friday prayers at Masjid Baiturrahman, Aceh's grand mosque AUTHOR PHOTO.

Aceh is Indonesia’s westernmost province. It’s usually famous for all the wrong reasons. For those with a long memory it’s associated with conflict and civil war, and the devastation caused by the 2o04 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed up to 200,000 people in one day. Recently the province has been strongly associated with it’s Islamic civic order program, a series of by-laws purportedly enacting shari’a law. These regulations are referred to locally as Qanun. Taking an external view, human rights abuses allegedly carried out by the Indonesian military (TNI) – during the Daerah Operasi Militer (DOM) period of the late 1990s and early 2000s – have been exchanged for violations carried out by the provincial government, in the name of religion. To some, Aceh is the canary in the coalmine for rising Islamic conservatism, intolerance and illiberalism spreading across Indonesia. To the more paranoid, it flags the risk to the world more generally.


A Facebook post from Sunshine Coast Safe Communities, Queensland, Australia.


In an article appearing on Deutsche Welle’s website from February 2020, Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, described the punishment by caning carried out under Aceh’s Qanun as cruel and inhumane. Instances of corporal punishment have been used for those found guilty by the local authorities for violations such as sex outside of marriage, adultery, same-sex intercourse, gambling, prostitution and the sale or consumption of alcohol.

With these events occurring as public spectacle – where the guilty are caned on a podium in front of an audience – they have resulted in strong media coverage. Subsequently, popular conceptions of Aceh have become strongly enmeshed with a hard-line Islamic image, even in Jakarta. The provincial government has not necessarily discouraged this perception, though the province’s Light of Aceh tourism campaign from 2016 could have been an attempt to overcome the stigma, or equally have been produced in ignorance of it.

Recently, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Acehnese fisherman rescued almost a hundred Rohingya refugees who were stranded at sea. As Max Walden reports for ABC News, leaky boats carrying Rohingya faced being refused port, until they were rescued by local fisherman. This rescue was not without precedent. In 2015, Acehnese fisherman recovered almost 1000 Rohingya asylum seeker, offering them a temporary safe haven when they had been refused port everywhere else. Amnesty’s Usman Hamid described these actions as the best of humanity.

So, what is going on with these two contrasting occurrences. It can be difficult to comprehend that the province that rescues refugees when no-one else is willing, at the same time violates the rights of those who it deems to be deviant or miscreant, using physical force and public humiliation for crimes as minor as adultery. This will be the subject of this article, the first in a series I intend to write exploring Aceh’s so-called Islamic turn.

At risk of sounding like a naïve enthusiast, I’m sceptical of the typical shari’a law narrative when it comes to Aceh. The term shari’a implies religious police – Aceh’s Wilaytul Hisbah or WH – standing on every corner, checking standards of dress and looking for behaviour deemed deviant.

In the two months that I spent in Banda Aceh, including bringing the extended family out from Australia for my wedding, not once did I witness any enforcement of the Qanun by authorities. While there is often a big difference in Indonesia between urban and rural areas, in the short time that I spent in and around Takengon, in the Gayo highlands, I never saw any enforcement there either. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but it certainly doesn’t happen often.

In fact, I wouldn’t have known Aceh was “under shari’a law” unless I had read about it before arriving in the province. My wife and I travelled around Banda Aceh freely before our wedding. I never once witnessed the WH in action, which was a little disappointing. This is not to say that the Qanun doesn’t exist. It does, but in the regional capital, enforcement by the state is weak at best.

Living in Banda Aceh, I didn’t find it any different to living in rural West Sumatra, where I’d participated in the 2013-14 Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) in rural Solok, several hours outside of Padang. We were stationed in a village named Koto Sani, in Solok regency, where pressure to conform to religious norms, such as wearing the hijab, was social and came from the community as well as family members. I recall one occasion when some of the Australian girls went running the through the village for exercise.

Later, some of the village women, the tante-tante who would congregate at the warung over the road from the office, admonished them: active wear was far too sexy for the conservative standards in the village and the Aussie girls should be wearing the hijab. I think part of what caused the problem, though it remained unsaid, was that by running the girls showed that they were empowered. They displayed strength and independence and this was breaking the gendered norms of our small host village.

There is nothing in the Qur’an, and in most interpretations of Islam, about forcing non-believers to wear the hijab. Even in Islam, there is some debate about the wearing of the hijab itself, and the interpretation of that specific passage in the Qur’an. But, in Koto Sani, a village that had rarely, if ever, been visited by foreigners — maybe a Christopher McCandless style Dutch backpacker or two on their way to Sawah Lunto — this issue would not raise itself often. I don’t think the women would have ever encountered a situation like this before, involving foreigners. They’re usual instincts about maintaining decorum and public decency kicked in, and they fired from the hip. The tante-tante were trying to uphold community standards. This was social pressure enforcing normative behaviour, and this type of enforcement is also common in Banda Aceh, and on occasion even spills over into vigilante action.

Despite the Qanun, in Aceh, it’s common for women to leave the house without the hijab. That’s why the window tint on most cars is so dark. Especially if they need to duck out and get something quickly from the shops. One night my wife and I went on a late-night Indomaret run, to buy snacks and get some bottled water. I was wearing a T-shirt and my wife only had a hooded jumper, no hijab. There was an old man in the convenience store, when my wife smiled at him he just glared back, obviously pissed off at her transgression. He was having the same reaction as the tante-tante in Koto Sani. The look in his eyes said where is your hijab, and what are the two of you doing?

This was how I saw the Qanun being applied and enforced, by family members and by the community more broadly. These encounters made much more sense to me, after reading Julian Millie’s recent article “An Anthropological Approach to the Islamic Turn in Indonesia’s Regional Politics”. Millie argues that Indonesian provinces with a high proportion of Muslims can show a shared commitment to collective embodied practice and that indigenous lifeways and customs (adat) can be informed by Islamic ritual practice (Millie 2018, p.208). This is especially so in provinces where Islam has been a dominant, structuring presence for several centuries (Millie 2018, p.209). He argues that Islamic civic order programs, like Aceh’s Qanun are

– to some degree – precisely what many of their architects claim they are: expressions of cultural dispositions deemed authentic by the Indonesian communities in the regions concerned. (Millie 2018, p.208)

My anecdotes from Banda Aceh tend to support this. Enforcement of Qanun regulations in Banda Aceh was more likely to come through family members scolding each other for misbehaving or from members of the community trying to keep up appearances. It was unlikely to come from the state.

I arrived in Banda Aceh in late-2017, after completing the BIPA course – Indonesian language for foreigners – at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta on a Hamer scholarship from the Victorian government.

In January 2018 my fiancé and I would be married. We couldn’t have the ceremony at Masjid Baiturrahman – Banda Aceh’s grand mosque – as they wouldn’t let non-Muslim foreigners enter the building, at that time. Instead we had it at my father-in-law’s house.

In the lead up to the celebrations, my fiancé and I spent a lot of time cruising the streets of Banda in the family’s Honda Freed. The key needed replacing and we went to the Pasar Aceh area to find a locksmith. The first day I dressed in my standard bule-miskin attire: dusty cargo pants and a t-shirt. This was my favoured look in Indonesia, it had kept me from getting robbed while riding Jakarta’s commuter line trains for four months.

The sight of a bule and an Acehnese girl out together in public would draw some hard stares, and people who didn’t know me would usually be slightly suspicious when first interacting. My take on the situation was that by being dressed informally I highlighted my status as a traveller or outsider.

The next day, on the advice of my partner, I raided her father’s wardrobe and swapped the t-shirt for a baju koko, a standing collar shirt. In Banda Aceh these are often adorned with motifs, such as the Acehnese door, and are considered to be an Islamic shirt. They’re standard attire at Friday prayer or on Lebaran day.

Wearing a baju koko saw me completely changed how strangers would interact with me. I was almost always welcomed on the street. The hard glances shot at the naughty Acehnese girl hanging around with a kafir, changed to questions and exclamations. People would often practice their English, pointing at me, saying “Muslim? Muslim! Good Good!” and giving me the thumbs up. The difference a shirt can make.

To most people, my image changed from outsider to insider, and I was welcomed in most places – even though I would describe the Acehnese as friendly in most circumstances – people were more friendly and welcoming. By wearing my religion over my chest, it became obvious to the Acehnese in the street that I was one of them. Or at least I was respecting their rules by maintaining an acceptable standard of dress.

I contend that Aceh’s Qanun operates much more like a sense of public decorum — here I’m following Millie (2018) — rather than a set of laws strictly imposed and enforced by the state. I would qualify that my observations are limited, and that this argument is not enough to draw strict conclusions, but would rather serve as an interesting jumping-off point for further research.

In the next article, I will explore the themes of community and belonging.

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