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Aceh, the Veranda of Mecca, has been one of the main gateways for the Islamisation of South-East Asia for centuries and Sharia has been enforced in this region since at least the 17th century but also at certain times during the 19th and 20th centuries. Nevertheless, Aceh, the only province of Indonesia where Sharia applies, is neither Afghanistan nor Saudi Arabia. Polygamy is not written in the law, at least for now, and despite social pressure, not all women wear the Islamic veil. Girls attend school and university, get scholarships and practise sports, and mingle with boys as long as it is in public and they do not stand too close to one another. In some coffee shops, boys and girls chat happily together. At first, the atmosphere seems relaxed and pleasant. But under this appearance lies a much darker reality. Men and women can be harassed or arrested by the police for sitting together in a public setting, unmarried couples are forbidden to be in close contact and are sometimes denounced to the police by neighbours; the same happens to gay couples and to other offenders for crimes such as illegal gaming or alcohol consumption.

They are not married, they sit in a remote area of a coffee shop. They are ordered to put some distance between them. Credit: Patrice Victor

If found guilty, they can be flogged in public, sometimes in front of a throng of cheering onlookers. All of this is done under the Islamic law, Sharia. A special unarmed police force, the morality or Sharia police, chases those who don't abide by its rules.

Guilty of Standing by the Sea

Prachatai attended two patrols by the Sharia police in Banda Aceh, the capital of the province. The squad, made up of about 10 men, looks for unmarried couples, especially in remote or poorly lit areas.  The patrol truck stops by the road along the sea: a man and a woman stand by the shore. Their ID is checked, they are non-married, and nobody is around to monitor them: they are ordered to return home. One policeman tells them: "Dating is forbidden under Islam, what if your parents knew?" They would probably have been more lenient if the couple had been in a public area. Merely standing or sitting side by side in a quiet space with a member of the opposite sex to whom one is not married or related is a crime (khalwat).

An unmarried couple is ordered to leave: they stand by themself in a remote area. Credit: Patrice Victor  

In another stop by a small restaurant the squad requires the manager to monitor the behaviour of his guests and to check if they are married. If not, he should ask them to maintain some physical distance.When the Sharia police doesn't arrest people but 'instructs' them about what to do and not to do, it's called 'socialization'. One policeman explains: in coffee shops they allow some leeway when the places are crowded. It is probably the explanation for those places where boys and girls socialize together.

Those women are ordered to stop their picnic and leave. After 10 pm women are not allowed to be outside by themselves. Credit: Patrice Victor     

By night-time things are a bit more drastic. Four unaccompanied women are having a picnic. They are compelled to leave all at once; the city hall has adopted a by-law which forbids women to be outside by themselves after 10 pm.

When asked about their motivation, a member of the squad responded: "We work not only for the people, but for Allah, so we will have a better life after death". Other members of the squad agreed.

A squad of the morality police. Credit: Patrice Victor 

When people suspect two unmarried persons or a gay couple of being together at night in a room, neighbours may raid the house, sometimes beat them, and ask them for an explanation or report the situation to the morality police. This reporting is promoted by the authorities. An official in Banda Aceh, Musriadi Aswad, declared in 2020 "… it is hoped that citizens will support early prevention and monitoring of Sharia law". "Forbidden love" are the words you find in the headline of an article in a local newspaper about the extramarital relationship between a city hall secretary and the head of social services in Karangmoncol Village, Pemalang Regency in central Java. Their relationship stirred the anger of the local community to the point that some villagers raided their house in February 2021. They were brought to a public hall and held accountable for their behaviour. Like the police, those vigilantes believed they were justified in their actions in the name of God.


Extramarital relationships are one of the crimes which may be punished by flogging. Here in brief is the way a local online media agency, Waspada, reported the flogging with a rattan cane of an unmarried couple, TR, a man already married, and EV, a widow with children, on November 4th last year at Alue Dama Village, Southwest Aceh Regency.

A video from AFP shows how flogging is being done in Aceh.

TR raised his hand several times in surrender, because he could not withstand the strokes of the rattan cane on his back, and the person in charge of the flogging immediately stops for a moment. EV, after the 50th stroke, seemed to collapse. After a temporary halt, the lashing continued. The caning of EV went on till the 66th stroke, when she again asked for the flogging to stop. On the 70th stroke she raised her hands and began to cry. Between the 70th to the 100th lashes, the condemned raised their hands several times. After the punishment was complete, EV received treatment from the medical team that was deployed at the location.

According to official figures, 2 to 3 people are flogged each month on average in Banda Aceh. At the time of writing, the last flogging in Aceh was on October 7 in Karang Baru Town. Three people convicted of adultery were each sentenced to one hundred lashes and eight men were given a "lighter" sentence of between 10 and 20 lashes each for gambling. The next flogging is expected in November.

The law in Aceh denies the right to privacy and personal autonomy and violates several international treaties, including some to which Indonesia is a party. By allowing Sharia law in Aceh, Indonesia fails to respect its commitments under the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Indonesia's President, Joko Widodo, has called for it to end, but to no avail. Given the political edge of the Islamists, even if a minority, the government is cautious when dealing with them.

 No need to read, it's forbidden. Credit: Johanes Randy

The media is a driver of the public perception of Sharia. Serambi Indonesia is the largest local daily in Aceh. One of its editors, Eddy Fitriady, argues: "We have our own rules, we don't care how harsh they are. Don't get involved with it, why are you interested in it? Better not to talk about some topics," he warns Prachatai. Then he explains, "It's what many people think, not me – but sometimes I feel the same."

Two other journalists specializing in justice news at Serambi, give their opinion: "A lot of people here accept Sharia. Physical punishment is not a big mistake. It's not so terrible because each flogging diminishes jail time. The problem is the way people outside Aceh consider it. We hope foreigners can see Sharia under a positive light. Foreign media often give it bad coverage. They consider the convict condemned to flogging as a victim, but it's a punishment for what he or she has done."

A member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Aceh, Juli Amir, stresses that "when people are flogged, it is horizontally, not straight down", implying that it's less painful. "Sharia should prevail over human rights because here Muslims are the majority." Worried about the impact of Sharia on tourism and the economy he adds, "Foreign journalists should not scare tourists; you can find here women who don't wear the veil".

Not a Place for Gays

Since 2014, when homosexuality was outlawed, gays have become the public enemy. In 2020, a student leader and social activist, Sultan Alfaraby, called for gays to be eradicated because according to him, they undermine the dignity of Aceh and spread disease and their behaviour is contrary to religion and law. In 2017 the Aceh Institute published an article stirring up hate against gays. It alleged that 78% of "homosexual perpetrators" have venereal disease. They trigger "the extinction of the human species, impact security, and commit violence against children to fulfil their sexual desires." Ahmad,* a 30- year-old gay, says "As long as Sharia law is still in effect in Aceh, we gay people are very afraid. I don't dare to meet locals, I'm afraid of being framed. It's better to be alone than to be whipped in public, it's your disgrace for life."

The Ulama Consultative Council of Aceh has delivered a fatwa stating there is no point in organizing concerts in Aceh. From the perspective of this institution, they generate tension in the general public. Its President, Lem Faisal, added "If music tends to make people oblivious of Allah, it is forbidden. … Activities not in line with the teaching of Islam must be dropped". Nevertheless it is worth noting that breakdance is supported by the authorities as a sport - not as a dance.

In Aceh all should be fine for a pious Muslim, but it's not always the case. Nur*, an old man who uses a walking stick, says "Sometimes neighbours knock at my door and ask why I don't go to the mosque. I have to explain I'm old, in poor health and it's difficult for me to walk." Not going to the mosque or not "performing Friday prayers three times in a row" can be punished by caning.

Not everybody supports the dress code. Ilham* says "I give myself this freedom, I wear shorts, it's not so apparent because I drive a car, but if I was riding a motorcycle the morality police could easily spot me. I hate it, but I have the feeling I cannot do anything against it. I'm a civil servant; if I say anything publicly I would run into trouble. I don't believe in this religion, but it's something I can't say here. It's hard to go against this system." Indah*, one of her female friends, dresses like most girls in Bangkok or Paris. "In order to avoid trouble, despite being registered as a Muslim I say I'm Catholic. If people know I'm a Muslim they ask "Why do you behave this way?" Women are much more under control than men. People think I'm a whore because I don't wear the hijab, but in fact sex workers wear it." Her friend Farah* wears a scarf but she disagrees with Sharia. "Those in charge of monitoring respect of the law often don't follow it. I wear a scarf because I feel comfortable wearing it".

A squad of policewomen. They check the respect of the dress code by other women, including the length of their dress. Credit: Patrice Victor 

Dress standards and criminalization of sex between unmarried people were put in place in 2002 by local authorities and in 2004 were included in the Islamic Criminal Code. It is not much opposed among the Acehnese population of more than 5 million, the huge majority of which is Muslim. Islamisation was boosted after the December 26th, 2004 tsunami that killed at least 130,000 people and left 500,000 homeless. Because of the devastation, the Free Aceh Movement, a guerrilla force fighting for independence, declared a ceasefire in exchange for Aceh being granted a special status with extended power to the local authorities, including matters that touch religion and law. A few months later, on August 15, 2005, a peace agreement was signed in Helsinki between the Indonesian government and the guerrillas (the Helsinki MOU). According to this, the Acehnese authorities undertook to redraft the law in accordance with the universal principles of human rights as provided for in the United Nations International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It has never been done.

Of course, not all Muslims in Aceh agree with this authoritarian version of Islam. Nonetheless, Sharia is applied in the province without much public protest. Those who impose their own rules on society seem to believe they hold the absolute truth. Everything which does not fit with their view is rejected as non-Islamic. Their followers are more and more vocal, not only in Aceh, but more generally in Indonesia. For instance, last September a radical Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, called for the implementation of Sharia, just as in Aceh, everywhere in this country with the largest Muslim population in the world, which is nevertheless a secular state. In the meantime, it becomes harder and harder for liberal Muslims to make their voice heard. Islamofascism is on the rise in Indonesia.

* Names have been changed for security reasons

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