Living under sharia

December 20, 2012

Banda Aceh, Indonesia

By Damir Sagolj

A siren rips apart the silence at the tsunami memorial in Aceh. A short announcement follows, after a greeting in Arabic and blessing from God – everyone is to leave the site immediately. It is time for prayers and the memorial built around a huge ship stranded miles inland during the 2004 tsunami will soon close its gates. Visitors are leaving the site, expected to go to nearby mosque and pray.

I’ve been watching different groups silently walking through the gates – students, business-like people, families and tourists – few went praying. Others were more interested in small shops selling souvenirs and in their pictures being taken. Some stood behind the memorial’s fence, smoked a cigarette and then just boarded their buses.

Aside from some smaller districts in Indonesia that have sharia-inspired bylaws, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, where such laws are implemented. This is something that occurred for complicated reasons some of which go well beyond the religion itself and have more to do with Achenese tradition, the long struggle for the independence and conflict with outside forces, Jakarta included.

Indeed Aceh is where Islam, spreading from the Middle East, landed first in the archipelago (the province is often called “the verandah of Mecca”, something that is mandatory for every reporter coming from Aceh to mention) but it was only at the beginning of the 21st century when sharia was announced by the government in an attempt to finally end a rebellion that had lasted for decades.

The first punishments came after the law entered into force, in what locals say was something of a “pilot project”. It took few years to organise how the laws would be seriously implemented. A sharia police force was formed, courts were established, but it was the tsunami in 2004 and the following peace deal that marked the start of more ambitious implementation of several sharia laws passed by local authorities.

There is a strong connection between the devastating tsunami that killed 170,000 people in Aceh and the implementation of Sharia law.

A message in thick red letters handwritten on a wooden board is placed at a spot where it cannot be missed on a popular beach in Banda Aceh, the province’s capital. The warning to those who might be violating one of the Islamic law says: “Be aware! Being a couple dating alone at the beach in our village is your own responsibility”.

The other one, just down the road warns: “dating is extremely forbidden”. Beside the sign, a happy couple sits fully dressed in ankle deep water playing with their kid, offering an idealistic picture of a Muslims enjoying their time.

Dariani Binti Ali Basyah, a 46-year-old shop owner near the beach and a widow who lost her husband and three sons in the tsunami explains to me “I believe the tsunami was the punishment from the God. It was not just a natural catastrophe, it was the punishment. Since long time ago ulama was warning about the punishment that will be sent when we are not ready. Even last night at zikr (a collective prayer) they were talking about the punishment, the warning from the God”.

Now, villagers put up signs warning people from outside to obey the rules. “I’m worried it will happen again,” Binti continues. “There could be another disaster, not only tsunami. It can also be individual punishment”.

I look at the strong woman with a lot of respect for her struggle to rebuild her devastated life and stay safe. But, that does not make complete sense, many of my questions have no answers – why here, why innocent, why…?

I understand that according to Herr Marx religion can be the “opium of the people”, and that such a belief serves as the anaesthetic after the big tragedy, like an airbag that absorbs the impact of mighty calamity. I didn’t say any of that to the woman who didn’t expect any words from me anyway. I just lifted my camera, focused on her face with no visible emotion and then moved a lens to the right, snapping an unnecessary picture of a bloody sunset descending over Aceh.

Who am I to judge? I’m just a stranger who parachutes into other people’s lives and only hopes to understand. I read post-tsunami poems in the book I bought at the airport, one of them saying “I believe that this is a sign of His love/For us/An eternal love wrapped in secrets, which can never/Be grasped”.

These beliefs are not only found here near the sea and among the survivors; some people
across the province also think the tsunami was a message from God and some even take actions beyond writing warning messages. Recently, shops offering snacks and soft drinks to young people gathering nearby were set on fire, just to make sure young and unmarried couples would not sit too close to each other in isolated places, angering the God.

Other places, more isolated and far from villages, offer a different picture. On Lam Puuk beach, just outside Banda Aceh, hundreds of youngsters, boys and girls together, play volleyball, bury each other in the sand or just swim. No bikinis here, but people are certainly not fully dressed as sharia instructs – I see some headscarves and long robes, but people mostly wear loose t-shirts and shorts. It seems to be a lot of fun here, as it should be on a beautiful and sunny afternoon.

A group of teenage girls burry a boy in sand and insist I shoot a happy picture of them before they all run into the water. It gives me the feeling I’m in Lebanon or Jordan, but not Iran or Saudi Arabia. “Sharia lite”, a friend of mine suggests.

Who is going to make sure Sharia laws are implemented here, far from scared villagers and among just the ghosts of empty houses built for tsunami survivors in the wrong place? Sharia police perhaps, on their rare visits to such places.

Formed to implement Sharia law, Wilayatul Hisbah (WH), which is the official name for the sharia police, is spread across the province working in small units, patrolling and conducting occasional raids. The units are made up of different kinds of people – some of them claim to be on a mission, others just needed a job. There is no more obvious move for a journalist than to join the sharia police force patrolling streets and “isolated places”.

Facing strong competition from many of the so-called embeds I have done with different forces around the world, I must say that my time spent with WH was probably the most boring
one. With only occasional moments worth documenting, most of the time
on patrol is spent praying or on coffee breaks. It was boring but interesting, a friend of mine would say, for such an important story that offers more downtime than excitement.

It all starts with in the morning with a military-style set up – men to the left,
ladies to the right – listening to the commander’s routine short speech. The force that looks more like a veteran boy-scout unit mixed with militant housewives will soon be deployed on pick-up trucks to the streets of Banda Aceh.

No weapons are carried, if you don’t count several Rambo knives hanging from the belts of “wehas”.

Their vehicle, clearly marked as WH, drives slowly until someone calls warning of a possible violation. On my first day with the force, I made friends with Iwan who joined the sharia police only a year ago. He seems to be more eager for action than others and I keep an eye on
him, looking for the picture that would tell the story.

After making several rounds, the pick-up leaves the city centre and goes into the labyrinth of a neighbourhood built unsystematically for the survivors of the tsunami – the patrol is obviously looking for someone who has broken the rules. This time, contrary to a reporter’s wish to witness something more exciting, the targets are three teenage boys who escaped school and are now smoking cigarettes in the shade of a big tree. The boys, naturally, jump and start running away the moment they see the patrol arriving. Iwan is the one who chases them but even his enthusiasm, which I suspect has something to do with my presence, fades as soon as the speedy violators disappear behind a fence into a bush.

Their school backpacks are searched and the proof of their anti-Islamic activity is found – a set of dominos that suggest possible gambling. The boys are too far away now and our patrol abandons the chase to go praying. The dominos are theatrically thrown into the mud.

After the mid-day prayer, more exciting law enforcement takes place – another schoolboy is captured, this time in an online game centre! Iwan keeps his big hands down but leans forward getting into the boy’s face to give him a moral lecture. His facial muscles dance, his
shoulders jump while bursts of words are fired at the kid. The boy remains very cool just like other young gamers in a dim room more excited about their scores of terminated cyber enemies and playing their fantasy football games. (As more bags are searched, a playstation wizard in the far corner seems to be unbeatable, with Messi, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic in the same team).

Day after day, I witness more patrols all much alike. Only on Fridays, the routine changes. It is a Muslim holy day and men are supposed to go to the mosque for prayers. This
time, to ensure sharia is not violated, only an all-female unit is deployed to the city, armed with determination and a pair of loudspeakers mounted on their trucks. The message broadcast is simple and loud – all the business are to stop their activities, all shops to close and Muslim men are to go to the nearest mosques. Indeed, as the prayer time gets closer, more and more curtains are placed over the shop windows and the streets are almost deserted by men.

The patrol vehicle spots a small restaurant still open minutes before prayers start, and it pulls over, with a warning blasting from it speakers. A policewoman gets out of the truck and walks towards a man whose meal has just been served. A piece of chicken in his hand, he faces a lecture. In a movie-like scene, they look into each other’s eyes for few long seconds
and the man gives-up. It might be because a journalist is present but he gets up and leaves his lunch for prayer.

Back at the station, our mutual addiction to black coffee brings an Achenese and a Bosnian closer, and I use the downtime to talk to Iwan. The interview turns into a monologue as soon as the first question is asked, when Iwan gives me a theological explanation of a variety of issues. I write down the main points: he is on a mission spreading love among Muslims, he confirms that the tsunami was the punishment from the God, there should be more sharia police and implementation should be stricter… As far as possible human rights violations go, he laughs and says there are none and that everything is matter of perception.

However, human right activists warn that the implementation of Sharia actually does violate some human rights that are guaranteed by Indonesia’s laws and international conventions. Evi Zian, a prominent human rights activist from Banda Aceh explains that the rights of most vulnerable groups are indeed violated. “Implementation of sharia law actually brought human rights violations. Implementation itself using discrimination and also not following the law that had been ratified by Indonesian government. The vulnerable groups who had been getting
lots of discrimination are women, young people, minorities and, of course, the poorest.”

In the days that followed I visited those from vulnerable groups, carrying my camera and sound recorder with me. In a coffee shop called Black Jack, members of a punk band known best for an episode in which they were publicly punished and had their hair shaved, perform a song about equality for me on improvised instruments. (There is no boss, no subordinate/One goal, one hope/Live free, no occupation).

A few of the province’s remaining homosexuals and transsexuals complain that Aceh is probably one of the worst places for them to live but “it’s still okay”. A rather large group of protestant Christians who gathered for an early Christmas celebration in their church seem to be happy people, but also point out some difficulties.

Despite Sharia law, all of them say they are at home for good and, if the rules are followed, everything will be okay. At the same time, they do complain about sometimes un-professional and partial implementation of laws, mostly blaming it on the police and individuals who sometimes take things in their own hands.

“I don’t like the Sharia police, they disturb me” says one rebellious boy enjoying the nice afternoon at the beach. He confirms what many others are saying – for them, the problem is not the laws and Sharia itself, the real problem is implementation.

Human right activists indeed say that implementation is not what it should be – the police themselves sometimes violate laws and the rich and powerful get away without punishment
while the poor are regularly targeted. For some, such punishment is more than enough. Humiliated, they leave their villages or in the worst-case scenario – like the case of a teenage girl recently accused of adultery – they kill themselves.

Outside the capital Banda Aceh, the image changes slightly. There are more violations closer to the border with other provinces, while strong self- rule prevails in remote areas.

However, the main thing remains the same – there is a law, a force to implement it and politics above everything. It all makes one big power game in which the poor and the weak seem to suffer the most.

Seen from abroad, the issues surrounding sharia seem more serious and dramatic, partly due to sensationalist reporting and all the fuss about Islam in the world. You would see pictures on TV or in the paper of violators being publicly punished, but the number of such cases and
the reality is different. Very few punishments actually happen under sharia, and most of them are not meant to physically hurt but just to give a moral lecture.

However, the set of laws in force in Aceh is just a smaller part of what would be full Sharia implementation, covering all levels of society. At present, the sharia package in Aceh targets only those violating the Muslim dress code, illicit behaviour, drinking and gambling.

Some more serious laws with punishments that would include stoning to death are in procedure but not implemented yet. Many of those I spoke to – regular folks with ordinary lives, predict that will never happen.

I spent my last few days in Aceh documenting daily life in the province devastated by long decades of conflict and by a tsunami which left scars difficult to heal. For two boys wearing football jerseys (one Rooney and one Suarez) in an Islamic boarding school for orphans, I’m just another foreigner who has come only to leave a few days later. They ignore me, as they should.

For patients in a mental hospital whose number rose after the tsunami, I’m just someone who has cigarettes. For Winda and Yasir Saputra, a couple who met over Facebook (which is incredibly popular because of the restrictions imposed on young people) and whose wedding I photographed, I’m just another guy with the camera who promises pictures…

As I leave through the gates of a new, mosque-like airport building, another post-tsunami poem comes to my mind “To be born in Aceh is a disaster/To be born in Aceh is a curse/But the Achanese people are mighty proud and die here/God is Great/By God, the Achanese people are used to tests”.

The plane takes off and the Bosnian in me finally feels he understands at least a part of the complicated story – the part about the curse and the part about pride.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

To blame the tsunami on God is to blame a molten ball of metal and stone that the landmasses of the world float on constantly and that are always in slight movement relative to each other. The continents swim around on it and have been doing so for billions of years.

If God was punishing the people living around the Indian Ocean, he must be in a constant state of turmoil himself?
He can’t seem to stop hitting things all over the planet. He sounds a lot like al Qaeda or the USA, come to think of it.

The next major earthquake anywhere will also, by definition, be the “punishment of God” according to these people, and they will never know exactly what they did to deserve it. But God must be clever. He must believe his victims should make up excuses for his actions? If they get another big quake they will have to come up with another excuse.

That usually works. And God doesn’t have to prove a thing to anyone. That’s what I was raised on too. God was always defined as the supreme infantile motivation under everything and everyone: God the big crying flailing baby.

Still the photos of ghosts at prayer look so attractive.
But there is more individuality in a mowed lawn or in a carton of eggs. “God” so loves a uniform, I suppose? Be careful Aceh: God may not want so many eggs in one basket, so to speak.

God can be one of those ideas, that once you’ve got it – you can’t quite get rid of it, but you can never actually prove it was responsible for anything at all in your life.

That could be called Ghosts worshiping ghosts.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

When people have had enough, they will rebel against the oppressors. So far, the people like being controlled for the most part. They have a sickness of guilt and superstition which will take a few more generations before it is exposed as a bogus philosophy. In the mean time, they will just devour themselves. It’s Darwinism at its best.

Posted by alurlyrx | Report as abusive

The Quran, The holy book of Muslims, the Words of God as they believe says in a verse which its meaning “Corruption has appeared in land and sea because of the doings of the people’s hands”. which mean everything goes back to the people themself. they destruct their land for wealth for instance but who knows it could invite a disaster.
The point is there is no blaming on God but “The God Said so”.

sorry for bad english.

Posted by Khalil_Moechtar | Report as abusive