But others say the laws reflect popular local feeling – app/digital magazine available here (subscription required)

Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, Banda Aceh (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, Banda Aceh (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANDA ACEH – It was just after 7 pm on a Saturday evening, and the manager of the new King’O coffee and doughnuts outlet in Banda Aceh was lamenting a slow night’s business.

Henry, who would only give one name, said he opened the shop on May 17 this year in response to what he called a gap in the market.

“Any time I fly back to Banda Aceh from Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya, I see people bringing big boxes of doughnuts – Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, local brands,” he said.

With no such outlet in Aceh’s regional capital, Henry and some fellow Chinese-Indonesians set about filling a niche.

“Business was great for the first few weeks, every evening the place was full,” he said, rattling his knuckles on the top of a gleaming new Italian coffee machine.

But during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting season, King’O was forced to close during fasting hours, along with all the other restaurants in town. In previous years, cafes and food stalls could stay open during Ramadan, although business was much reduced given that the majority of people in this staunchly Islamic region on the northern tip of Sumatra were fasting.

This year’s Ramadan lock-down came after a tightening of Aceh’s sharia laws, which date formally to 2001. Some Acehnese contend, however, that they have always lived under sharia —  seen as a natural state of affairs for the region, with its Arab-infused population of 5 million.

Part of Aceh’s grievances with the central government in Jakarta date back to the time of independence, when Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno welched on a promise to allow Aceh to run its own affairs based on its centuries-old adherence to Islam. The longevity of the Muslim faith in the region was something noted as long ago as the 13th century by none other than Marco Polo, who was heading back to Europe after his sojourn in China. Much later, Acehnese separatists fought for independence from Indonesia in a near 30-year war starting in 1976 – a gruelling conflict that only ended after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed 170,000 people in the province and flattened Banda Aceh.

Ariful Azmi Usman, Secretary-General of the Aceh branch of the Indonesia Muslim Students Association, said that “the rule in Aceh, people like it, people like this life, it is not so hard to do for us,” he said.

But what about the 2 per cent of the population of Aceh who are not Muslim? “Aceh has the good tolerance for non-Muslims during Ramadan,” said Usman.

Insisting that sharia did not discriminate against non-Muslims, English teacher Kurniawati Nia, 28, said “we can respect each other and live together.”

However, since early 2014, sharia can now be applied to non-Muslims, a change that prompted the blanket ban on restaurants opening during fasting hours.

“Too much, too much,” said Henry, a Buddhist, discussing the expansion.

Outside Ramadan, it is not clear, however, whether the letter of sharia law is being enforced for non-Muslims. Both the Imam at the Dutch-built Baiturrahman Grand Mosque and the mayor of Banda Aceh declined to be interviewed about the matter.

Aceh’s sharia is enforced by a special police unit called Wilayatul Hisbah, members of which have been accused of raping female detainees and of heavy handedness in its dealings with alleged rule-breakers.

Ordinarily, the force monitors for the illicit sale of alcohol, or for women wearing clothes deemed too tight or revealing, or for women going around without the jilbab, or Islamic headscarf –similar tasks allocated to their counterparts in Iran’s religious police.

“The scarf makes me proud, because I am a Muslim and a woman,” said Kurniawati Nia, who was shopping for fruit and vegetables on a Sunday afternoon – provisions for a lavish fast-breaking meal she would cook for her family later the same evening.

Similarly, 32 year old Feethi Arya, who said she has become “somewhat westernised” after working for foreign NGOs for five years after the 2004 tsunami, said she was happy to wear the scarf.

And while it seems that most Acehnese Muslims approve of sharia, it is hard to assess the support among Muslims here for enforcing sharia on non-Muslims.

Unmarried men and women are not allowed to be alone together, a provision that means there is no cinema in Banda Aceh lest couples get too intimate in the darkened seats at the rear of the theatre. Alleged violators can be detained for up to 60 days before trial.

This correspondent saw several Chinese-Indonesian and other non-Muslim women going without the jilbab, and others, some Muslim, sitting late on a weekend night amidst a crowd of men to watch World Cup matches broadcast on a big screen downtown.

So even if the labeling is much the same, Aceh is a world apart from parts of South Asia or Middle Eastern regions where Islamic law is implemented, and further still from the depredations carried out in the name of sharia by the likes of the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) —  the thuggish zealots who are driving Christians, Shia Muslims and Yazidis out of parts of Iraq and Syria.

Discomfort with Aceh’s growing Islamization s not universal, it seems, even among religious minorities. Another Chinese-Indonesian, Rev. Johan Gao, a Methodist, said his congregants had not complained about the law.

“We try to make friendly relation with Muslims, and in reality, it does not affect us as it does Muslims,” he said.

Octowandi, manager of the plush Hermes Palace Hotel, where visiting politicians such as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have stayed in recent years, said he has had run-ins with local hardliners, the most recent in late 2013.

“They said this hotel cannot celebrate New Year’s Eve, cannot make a Christmas party,” said the hotel manager, a Catholic from Jakarta, recalling a late December visit from sharia vigilantes

That pressure came despite the hotel’s history of cultural and religious self-censorship. “We never put a Christmas tree in this hotel,” Octowandi explained, saying that this was done to avoid offending Muslims,

Such vigilance cuts into the social life at the Hermes Palace Hotel, said Octowandi, in turn undermining tourism in Aceh – a beach- and mountain-laden jewel of Southeast Asia. “You cannot drink a beer by the pool, you must take it to your room,” he said, shaking his head. “People do not want to come here because of that.”

Saying that less than 10 per cent of the hotel’s business is from tourists – the rest comes from conventions, meetings and the like – Octowandi suggested that “maybe they can copycat the policy from Malaysia.” Indonesia’s much smaller neighbour pulled in almost 26 million tourists in 2013, compared to Indonesia’s 8.8 million, according to United Nations statistics. Malaysia has elements of a sharia law system, but those do not apply to the 4 out of 10 Malaysians who are not Muslim.

But there are those in Malaysia who would have the country – or part of it at least – emulate Aceh, The opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known by its Malay acronym PAS, wants to legalise Islamic punishments, or hudud, in Kelantan. PAS has long controlled this northern region of Malaysia, which borders the violence-wracked southern Thai provinces where Malay Muslims have been fighting the Buddhist Thai state since 2004.

The energy-rich Sultanate of Brunei-Darussalam – where booze has long been proscribed – a new sharia penal code came into effect on May 1. The Sultan will in time bring in stoning and amputation as punishments for adultery and theft, going way beyond Aceh’s punishments, which include caning and up to 60 days detention prior to trial. But like Aceh, the measures will apply to the 20% of Bruneian residents who are not Muslim.

Indonesia’s 207 million Muslims make up the biggest Islamic population of any country, but for the most part Islamic identity has been either worn lightly, often layered onto pre-existing beliefs.

“The two largest Islamic organisations in Indonesia, the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, have historically occupied socio-religious space in such a way that they have posed an obstacle to the growth of conservative forms of Islam from the Middle East,” wrote Gwenael Njoto-Feillard, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, after the April 2014 parliamentary elections

And while Islamic parties will feature in the new legislature elected in April, with their 32% total vote up from the 29% won in 2009, it seems unlikely that these rivals will coalesce around a faith-based agenda, which would seem unlikely to gain traction among the mass of Indonesia’s Muslims.

One of the religious parties, the Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS in Indonesian, is mocked as the Partai Kotor Sekali, or ‘Very Dirty Party,’ after leaders were caught up in one of Indonesia’s litany of corruption scandals – and because despite backing an anti-porn bill, a PKS MP was snapped watching porn on a tablet – during a parliament session.

Nonetheless, according to the recently-published U.S. State Department report on religious freedom worldwide, 50 to 60 local governments in highly-decentralised Indonesia have implemented sharia-inspired regulations. “Such regulations are unevenly enforced,” however, report noted, with non-Muslims “generally exempted from regulations that relate to religious observation, such as those requiring women to wear headscarves.”

Rules and regulations, however, have not sullied Indonesia’s reputation as much as the actions of hardliners such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI, the Indonesia acronym), who have killed members of the Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect seen by some Sunnis as heretical. The FPI – regarded by most Indonesians as a rent-a-mob bunch of sock puppets and manipulated at opportune moments by security agents or politicians aiming stir up trouble – has also forced the closure of Protestant churches.

The FPI backed Prabowo Subianto’s Presidential run, seemingly a losing one after the Election Commission declared Joko Widodo the winner on July 22, though Prabowo is appealing. In the weeks prior to the July 9 vote, Prabowo pulled back a double digit deficit in opinion polls, with unsubstantiated allegations flying around that Widodo, a Javanese Muslim from Solo – where Indonesians have trained prior to going to Syria and Iraq to fight jihad – was in fact a closet Christian of Chinese descent.

With the election taking place during Ramadan, Joko made a quick visit to Mecca right before voting, aiming to burnish his Islamic credentials. On polling day, wife Iriana accompanied Joko to vote in central Jakarta – just as she did on April 9. Only this time, after seeing her husband’s lead eroded on the back of a religious smear, she came head covered with a jilbab.

But for all that, what marks Aceh out from elsewhere in the vast, Muslim-majority archipelago is the sharia code, which has no equivalent elsewhere in the country. Sharia is another reminder Aceh’s unique status within Indonesia, a ranking enhanced by the 2005 peace deal that ended the war. Aceh is the sole region allowed to have local political parties, for example.

But faith-rooted strictures are not the only hurdle that Aceh’s business owners and jobseekers have to deal with.

Henry, the doughnut and coffee visionary, said that in resource-rich Aceh, “there are so many new entrepreneurs, but generally the economic situation is not so good.”

As is the case elsewhere in Indonesia, decentralization of government in means a hefty annual subvention from Jakarta – around US$2billion in Aceh’s case, an economic sweetener to the 2005 peace deal in which rebels gave up their independence campaign in exchange for extensive local autonomy.

That deal, and the billions in reconstruction money spent after the 2004 tsunami, has meant contract options a-plenty for well-connected politicians and cronies, former gunmen among them.

“Everything is based on government spending, contracts, but often they are selling the projects to contractors from Medan, from outside,” lamented Henry.

For others, even finding a job is a challenge. Speaking outside the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque after evening prayers, Muhammed Arifsyah said – in fluent, sonorous English – that he had travelled from rural Aceh to try to find a job in the regional capital.

“I left my wife and children there for now. I am here three months already, but nothing yet,” he said, hooking a toe around a flip-flop he had discarded earlier that evening at the entrance to the mosque, because footwear is not permitted inside the white-lit prayer area. “Money in Aceh goes to people with connections. There is a lot of cronyism,” he said.

Steps leading into the men's prayer section at the Baiturrahman mosque (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Steps leading into the men’s prayer section at the Baiturrahman mosque (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Acehnese teenagers at video game hall inside Banda Aceh shopping mall (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Acehnese teenagers at video game hall inside Banda Aceh shopping mall (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
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