By Hotli Simanjuntak
February 12 2014
Aceh is commonly associated with conflict, tsunamis, peace and Sharia law.
The latter has remained an interesting topic of discussion, if not a source of controversy, among the public as well as policymakers.
Political upheavals that plagued Aceh for about three decades have earned it special autonomy, which eludes almost all regional administrations in the country.
Thanks to its status, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia invested with the right to enforce Sharia law along with the Criminal Code already in place in Indonesia.
Sharia in Aceh began in 2002 when Aceh was under Abdulah Puteh, the former governor imprisoned for corruption. Following the declaration of Sharia, the Aceh government through the Islamic Sharia office promptly prepared a Quanoon (Islamic bylaw) stipulating Islamic rules for the enforcement of Sharia.
In 2002, the Aceh government enacted Bylaw No.11/2002 on Islamic principles, worship and religious practice, followed by Bylaw No.12/2003 on Khamar (liquor) and similar drinks, Bylaw No.13/2003 on gambling and Bylaw No.14/2003 on Khalwat (indecency). The four bylaws constitute the Islamic legal code called Quanoon Jinayat (behavior-governing bylaw).
To date they remain effective pending the formulation of another Quanoon Jinayat that is considered to be more comprehensive in governing all aspects of social life in the province.
Despite the implementation of Sharia law, Aceh has been seen as tolerant as Islamic law is limited only to the Muslim population.
Non-Muslims are only asked to respect Sharia by refraining from violations or from committing acts that are deemed contradictory to Sharia.
This situation, however, will likely change before long, following the passage of a special bylaw called the procedural Quanoon Jinayat on Dec. 13, 2013. This procedural bylaw serves as the technical basis for the implementation of the Quanoon Jinayat put into force earlier.
The procedural by law stipulates that technical regulations apply to law enforcers as well as to everybody in Aceh.
This is also confirmed by one of the bylaw formulators, Abdullah Saleh, who says the new Quanoon is effective for all, both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Articles in the bylaw also say that with violations committed by two or more people together including non-Muslims, the non-Muslim offenders can choose to either follow the Quanoon and be tried in a Sharia court or adhere to the Criminal Code.
But if the violation is not regulated by national law, the non-Muslim offenders will automatically be charged under Sharia law.
This rule will take all those accused of violating Islamic law to the Sharia court, including non-Muslims. Various infringements regarded as Sharia violations do not belong to offenses in the general criminal law in Indonesia. An example is carrying or consuming alcoholic drinks. Under Sharia, the tolerable grade of alcohol for consumption is not specified.
With reference to the new Quanoon, Christians will not be able to hold a holy mass, in which wine, albeit containing less than 2 percent of alcohol, is the main element of the ritual. Under the new rule, whoever carries and consumes wine will be considered as infringing Sharia.
A simpler and more noticeable example can be found in daily life, such as the Islamic dress code. The bylaw on Islamic principles, worship and religious practice stipulates that Islamic dress must cover Aurat (body parts), including Jilbab (headscarves). For Muslims, wearing Jilbab is obligatory, but it is not so for non-Muslims.
In Aceh, non-Muslim women wearing Islamic dress with Jilbab are commonplace. Frequently, foreigners visiting Aceh are seen wearing headscarves just to respect Sharia. In the future, non-Muslim women will no longer wear Jilbab as a show of respect, but due to coercion because Sharia applies to non-Muslims. There is no reason not to abide by Sharia because national law does not regulate Islamic dress code.
The application of Sharia for non-Muslims is seen as inappropriate because Sharia regulates the life of people individually as well as the Islamic community collectively in the perspective of Islam. It will be very difficult to apply individual or community life outside the teachings of Islam.
If Sharia is imposed on non-Muslims, sooner or later Aceh will have to take risks. There will be a negative perception of Aceh in the international community and this will adversely affect investment in the province. Investors are eying Aceh due to its potential in the tourist industry and its rich natural resources.
Although the Home Ministry has not approved the procedural bylaw, non-Muslims have every reason to worry about intentions behind the legislative and executive endorsement of the Quanoon in terms of not favoring the minority.
There is speculation that Aceh’s councilors lack legal knowledge and simply passed the new bylaw to ensure they met the target to finalize the Quanoon debate, and to act as political camouflage in the face of general elections in April.
The new Quanoon is just a tool to win public sympathy and votes, without taking into account its consequences.
Aceh has always been called the most tolerant region in Indonesia because despite the application of Sharia, Aceh still allows non-Muslims to perform religious worship. But the fact is that the climate of pseudo-tolerance in Aceh remains, due to the many restrictions facing minority groups.
In the case of worship buildings, one should not expect their number in Aceh to increase. Today the number is declining with pressure to close new churches. Banda Aceh has only four churches, three Chinese temples and a shrine.
The construction of places of worship for non-Muslims will be very hard to realize because of the gubernatorial regulation that is far more stringent than similar ordinances adopted in any other region across Indonesia.
If the procedural Quanoon Jinayat comes into force anyway, it will be hard to imagine how non-Muslims will survive in Aceh, notwithstanding their equal rights as citizens before the law.
Hotli Simanjuntak, a Christian, is a correspondent of The Jakarta Post in Aceh.