By Marsen S. Naga
October 06 2014
The passing of Qanun Jinayat, an Islamic criminal code bylaw, by the Aceh legislative council has revived discussion on the formalization of Sharia. This bylaw or Qanun is among serial efforts of such formalization in Aceh since the enactment of Law No. 44/1999 on Aceh’s special autonomy.
The move to formalize Sharia in Aceh has at least two logical flaws. First, from the early history of Aceh, Islamic values and laws have become a way of life guided by local ulema.
Thus Sharia does not need to be formalized. Formalization would only trap living values in a dead book of law.
The second flaw is the assumption that the formalization of Sharia was the central demand of more than three decades of Acehnese struggle until the armed conflict was resolved with the peace agreement in the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the central government in Helsinki, Finland in 2005.
Formalizing Sharia was seen as a concession to maintain Aceh as part of the Indonesian state. This assumption is wrong as the MoU, which is considered the pillar of peace in Aceh, does not demand the formalization of Islamic law.
The long history of Aceh confirms that for Acehnese, Islamic law and local customs cannot be separated. Historian Taufik Abdullah has elaborated on the four important periods in the formation of Acehnese’ s world view and their cultural tendency, i.e. (1) early Islamization; (2) the golden age of King Iskandar Muda; (3) the war against the Dutch, 1873-1912; and (4) national revolution, 1945-1949.
Many artifacts of the early Muslim kingdoms were found in Aceh, including the tomb of King Malikulsaleh, the founder of the Samudera Pasai Kingdom who died in 1297. The role of this kingdom to spread Islam to the Malacca and Nusantara islands, which became Indonesia, is really important.
Even the respected preachers in Java, Sunan Ampel and Sunan Giri came from this kingdom.
The era of King Iskandar Muda is considered the best example where Islamic teachings truly served as the foundation of everyday life, blending customs and Islam. The king was the reference for customs and religious leaders for Sharia.
The period of war against the Dutch once again showed how Islam became the driving force of Acehnese resistance.
The almost 40 years of war was the longest and most expensive war for the Dutch. Aceh’s historical accounts say that Islamic values inspired its male and female warriors. It was in this period that Hikayat Perang Sabil (stories of holy war) became famous.
It was read and recited by people to encourage martyrdom in the war against colonial rule.
During the national revolution (1945-1949), the Acehnese overcame local sentiment and became the prominent supporter of the new republic. Although they had a chance to build their own nation based on Islamic law, they decided to join the new republic and contributed substantially in material forms.
Those important pillars in the history of Aceh vividly confirm that Islam is already a spiritual source of strength for its people. It is sometimes even said that “Islam is Aceh and Aceh is Islam”. There is no need to formalize Islamic law because Islam is already a living value.
The earliest foundation for Aceh’s autonomy — Law No. 24/1956 — which states Aceh’s separation from North Sumatra, never used the term Sharia. It was only in Law No. 44/1999 on Aceh’s special autonomy that implementation of Islamic law was mentioned as one of the authorities of the provincial administration. Where did this idea of formalizing sharia come from?
Scholar Rodd McGibbon argued that Islamic law for Aceh was the product of a political deal between the central government and local elites in Aceh. Islam was used as political commodity.
According to McGibbon, Jakarta elites often thought that the central demand of GAM was the implementation of Sharia.
When Jakarta failed to address the Aceh conflict and attempted to cripple GAM with violence, the dominant view in Jakarta at the time was to weaken GAM’s influence in the communities by reviving the important position of ulema in local communities. This was the logic behind giving Aceh the authority to implement Islamic law in all aspects of life.
Teuku Kamaruzzaman, a former GAM negotiator, had told McGibbon that, “Religious leaders have roles in religious matter but, in the world view of Acehnese, they never have political roles.”
McGibbon stressed that the Islamic law “package” was proof of the central government’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the core of the Aceh conflict was the imbalance between central and local (conflict over rich natural resources in Aceh) and gross human rights violations.
The Helsinki MoU focuses mainly on political and economic participation, and even explicitly delineates that the issue of religious freedom is the authority of the central government.
Law 11/2006 on Aceh governance, passed following the MoU, gives the Aceh government the authority to implement Sharia. This inconsistency of the central government is like “sending fire in a husk” and has created the potential for new conflict among the Acehnese. This tendency has been very clear.
Strangely, the central government gave Aceh what it has already been living with for so long — Islamic values. At the same time, Jakarta still denies them what they need most: prosperity and justice for past human rights violations.
Marsen S. Naga is a board member of the Aceh chapter of the independent Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) in Banda Aceh.