Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Aceh: Shari'a - the Islamisation of Acehnese Culture

Date: Wednesday 23 October 2002
Subj: Aceh: Shari'a - the Islamisation of Acehnese Culture
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

The oil- and gas-rich region of Aceh is located on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia. Aceh has a population of 4.3 million and has historically been staunchly Islamic. On 1 January 2002, as part of a wide-ranging autonomy package that the Indonesian government hoped would appease separatists, Aceh was granted the right to adopt Islamic law.

On 3 January 2002 the Jakarta Post reported, "The Aceh or Nanggroe Aceh Darusallam administration has officially put the special autonomy law and syariah (Islamic law) into effect." The article went on to quote Teungku Sofyan Hamzah, an imam at the grand Baiturrahman Mosque. "Asked about feelings of anxiety by some non-Muslims in Aceh following the implementation of the Islamic law, he (Hamzah) said that the minority should not worry. 'The administration will use national law for them.'"

Well - an article appeared in the Jakarta Post on 28 September 2002, detailing how under shari'a law, caning or imprisonment would be the punishment for those who "propagated beliefs other than Islam to Muslims in the province."

I sent the article to Rev. Dr. Mark Durie, and asked him for a comment. The author of many articles and books on Acehnese language and culture, Dr. Mark Durie -- a Anglican pastor in Melbourne, Australia -- was formerly head of the Department of Linguistics and Language Studies at the University of Melbourne. His insights come from years of extensive research and experience of Acehnese culture.

- Elizabeth Kendal


28 September 2002
"Aceh to implement caning punishment"

In line with sharia law, the Aceh legislative council is proposing that caning be one of the punishments for people who tempt Muslims to desert religious teachings.

A special team set up by the council is drafting the bylaw in response to Law No. 44/1999 on Aceh's special status and Law No. 18/2002 on special autonomy for Aceh.

Chairman of the special team Azhari Basar said that caning would be imposed on those who propagated beliefs other than Islam to Muslims in the province. "Those who violate the ruling will face a maximum jail term of two years and a maximum fine of Rp 6 million or 10 strokes of the cane," he told Antara.

Azhari said that according to Article 17 of the draft, anyone who skips Friday prayers three times in a row without an acceptable reason would be fined a maximum of Rp 2 million, six months in jail or three strokes of the cane.

"Caning also applies to those who open their food stalls during Ramadhan (fasting month)," he said. Food stall owners who sell food, beverages or cigarettes publicly or secretly during the holy month will be fined a maximum of Rp 4 million, spend one year in jail or receive five strokes of the cane.

However, it is not clear who is in charge of carrying out the caning punishment: the police or the sharia police.




The number of Acehnese Christians is small, however, a full Bible translation is available. I do not know at all what the current situation of the Christian Chinese community is in Aceh. Christians in Aceh consist mainly of soldiers, Chinese, and Bataks in the central and southwestern regions. There is no notable "Christian" area in Aceh, unlike neighbouring North Sumatra.

Since the 1950s Aceh has been considered a "special region", with certain concessions to its Islamic character. Government offices of religious affairs certainly support and promote Islam.

Church burnings have been an intermittent occurrence for the past 30 years. (Aceh was a forerunner in the significant increase of attacks on churches that has taken place throughout Indonesia.) The most significant protestant church in Banda Aceh, the capital, was burned down in the early 90's. Subsequently, permission to rebuild was refused.

Local church communities can have great difficulty getting permission to have a place for worship, e.g. having to build over water, or use the back of a shop.

Christians employed as teachers in schools (posted by the state education system) can come under enormous pressures to convert to Islam. Prayer for these isolated Christians is urgently needed.

The potential for conflict is perhaps greatest in South Aceh, where Batak ethnic communities include both Christians and Muslims. Without a clear ethnic-religious alignment, conversion to Christianity does not bring loss of ethnic identity and this can make conversion easier. Consequently, greater pressure could be brought to bear on the Christian community. (This is just my hypothesising about why South Aceh has been a region of conflict.)

Persecution of Christians is sometimes hard to distinguish from persecution of Chinese. During the massacres of "communists" in the 1960's, many Chinese Christians were killed. In Aceh a religious test was sometimes applied: if the person could not recite the Arabic confession of faith in Islam they were put to death. I had this from a Muslim person who narrowly survived the massacres.


The implementation of shari'a punishments is a profound change in Aceh, which has not been governed by the shari'a for over 100 years.

Most Acehnese people do pray regularly, and attend the Friday prayers. However in cities, not everyone would have complied. The use of force to require attendance, on pain of caning, is a disturbing trend.

In Aceh traditional ways - referred to as "adat" - have in the past been a very important authority for regulating daily life. The role of adat is recognized in Indonesian law, and was central to the role of Acehnese rulers in pre-colonial Aceh. This adat or "custom", being linked to the secular authority of the sultan, was always a balance to the shari'a. The recent introduction of shari'a law in Aceh is part of a centuries-long process of Islamising Acehnese culture, ultimately replacing adat with shari'a.

One can anticipate that there will be various areas of tension or conflict between adat and shari'a. For most Acehnese people, the whole Acehnese way of life is regarded as "Islamic", so this tension will be confusing. It will slow the rate of shari'a implementation. Paradoxically, Christians could be more vulnerable in this context, because non-Acehnese adat has little authority in Aceh.