Tales of the Unexpected: Contesting Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia

Tales of the Unexpected: Contesting Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia

In this interview, Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Southeast Asia Reza Idria discusses his research into Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia, and the forthcoming book manuscript based on his doctoral dissertation.
LKC Fellow Reza Idria

Reza Idria is an Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at the Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Ar-Raniry (Ar-Raniry State Islamic University) in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. He holds an MA and Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University as well as an MA in Islamic Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Born and raised in Aceh, the only province adopting Sharia Law in Indonesia, Reza’s research interests are at the intersection of legal anthropology and Islamic law. 

Idria is the Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia at APARC for the 2023 winter quarter. The fellowship, which is hosted jointly by APARC’s Southeast Asia Program (SeAP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, raises the visibility, extent, and quality of scholarship on contemporary Southeast Asia.

During his LKC NUS-Stanford fellowship, he will turn his doctoral dissertation, “Tales of the Unexpected: Contesting Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia,” into a book manuscript. This work is an anthropological study that examines a wide range of social and political responses that have emerged with the state implementation of Islamic law. The empirical data for this research project has been gathered in Aceh, the only Indonesian province that has adopted Sharia. Dr. Idria is also embarking on a new research project that focuses on the legal and socio-economic consequences of the local regulation on Islamic banking.

This interview originally appeared on the website of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

What sparked your interest in studying the social and political responses to the state implementation of Sharia law in Aceh, Indonesia?

There are some puzzling conditions in Aceh that sparked my interest to conduct this study. I grew up immersed in Acehnese Muslim culture and have lived through the historical and political transformation of the region since the period of armed conflict. In my view, the government’s efforts to translate Sharia into positive law in Aceh was motivated largely by political needs, rather than the religious ones. Islam has indeed a pronounced role in Aceh society since pre-colonial time, and the province is often called “Verandah of Mecca”, but it was only in 1999 the central government decided to impose Sharia law in the province in an attempt to quell the Free Aceh Movement rebellion.

In fact, it was the tsunami of 2004 that actually helped stop the war and led to the signing of peace agreement. However, it did not prevent the government to apply more aggressive Sharia law in the post-conflict and post-tsunami Aceh. While many Acehnese appeared supportive to the implementation of Sharia, I was also troubled with the impression created by many media outlets that all Acehnese accept Sharia law without question. Despite the aggressive enforcement directed by the state, my study found some elements of Acehnese society have passionately contested and challenged the official understanding of Sharia.

What challenges did you encounter when carrying out your fieldwork in Aceh for your upcoming monograph, Tales of the Unexpected: Contesting Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia?

I began gathering considerable data for this study in 2011 when I was involved in a joint research project on the Indonesian experience of Islam and politics after the fall of Suharto. Given the sensitivity of this topic conducting fieldwork was challenging. Some people were suspicious of my academic inquiry. People were mostly reluctant to speak on anything related to Sharia Law. Even those who have engaged in activism against Sharia law did not want to be seen as openly antagonistic to it. Many would say that they are not resisting Sharia as such, rather seeking to rescue Sharia from associations with fundamentalism. I think it is because the Acehnese perceived that their identity is deeply entwined with Islam, therefore critical voices to the state-led Sharia implementation are often subdued due to the fear of being labeled anti-Islam. It’s a dangerous stigma and I think no one could survive in Aceh with that stigma. Such condition contributes to people’s ambiguous and ambivalent reactions toward Sharia. To me this also explains why resistance to Sharia has eventually taken many forms and is often performed in unconventional manners. Sometimes so subtle that they might not seem like resistance at all.

How have the diverse range of local groups who have engaged in activism against Sharia law enforcement in Aceh cooperated with each other?

There was some cooperation and mutual support among local groups who share dissenting views concerning the state interpretations of Sharia. For example, in responding to the provisions of Islamic Criminal Code of 2009 (referred locally as Qanun Jinayah), intellectuals from several local universities, cultural activists, and dozens of civil society organizations worked together to criticize many controversial aspects of the proposed law. They formed an advocacy network called Jaringan Masyarakat Sipil Peduli Syariat (the Civil Society’s Network concerning Sharia). JMSPS activists used various strategies, from lobbying to organizing a series of demonstrations. They went to the Aceh Parliament condemning members of the parliament and the governor of Aceh had they not stopped proposing the law. The movement was relatively successful as the Sharia Criminal Code of 2009 was postponed because Governor Irwandi Yusuf eventually refused to sign it. However, conditions have changed in the following years, especially after Irwandi lost the gubernatorial election in 2012. His successor signed the Qanun draft and passed the Sharia criminal law in 2014.

How has Komunitas Tikar Pandan, the cultural organization you co-founded in Aceh in 2002, played a role in the responses to Sharia law implementation?

Komunitas Tikar Pandan continues to organize various culturally oriented activities such as creating writing workshops, painting exhibitions, film screenings and discussions. The organization’s mission from the very beginning is to generate critical awareness, especially for the young, about the dangers of cultural hegemony and structural oppression in the name of identity politics and religion. One example, in responding to the absence of public cinema in Banda Aceh which has been considered by Aceh’s Ulama Council incompatible to the spirit of Sharia, Komunitas Tikar Pandan provides a mini-cinema and hosts a series of film screenings and discussions as a rebuke. Tikar Pandan’s office occasionally became sanctuary for some members of marginalized groups in Banda Aceh.

How do activist groups based outside of Aceh provide assistance to local Aceh activists whose resistance to Sharia law enforcement has met with opposition from local authorities?

For some cases such as the anti-punk crackdown in 2011 and the persecution of Aceh queers in 2018, support and assistance from people outside Aceh were helpful and forceful imposing pressure upon the Sharia authorities to evaluate their actions. Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) from Jakarta offered legal assistance to release the arrested punks. International expressions support for Aceh’s punks also took place across the globe, from Moscow to San Francisco, under the slogan “Punk is Not Crime” condemning the crackdown. Some international human rights organizations also provided aid advocacy and financial support to LGBTQ activists in Aceh.

How has local public opinion of Sharia law changed since it was implemented in Aceh, and what factors have been most influential in shaping this change?

At the beginning, there was a tremendous hope that the Sharia law would restore justice in the region affected by decades of bloody armed conflict. The conflict period was the period of profound lawlessness for the Acehnese. They were killed, tortured, and raped but no perpetrators had been brought to trial. That’s why I think people in Aceh were enthusiasts when the central government offered Sharia law to the province in 1999. Gradually the implementation has given rise to its own issues and resulted in the creation of multiple injustice and many forms of violence too. I think there are two factors that have been most influential in shaping and creating the negative image of the current Sharia implementation in the province, first morality policing through the special unit known as Sharia police. Second, the enactment of spectacle punishment, namely hukum cambuk (public caning). While Sharia promises to be a comprehensive guidance in all aspects of life, the Aceh government has been criticized by many ordinary Acehnese to focus merely on symbolic aspects of Islam, while neglecting what they viewed as more “substantial” concerns.

What developments do you anticipate happening in Aceh’s political and social scene in the near future that could affect the enforcement of Sharia law?

Aceh has been the poorest province in Sumatra within the last five years according to official survey. Despite receiving tremendous financial assistances from international agencies during the tsunami recovery and from the central government (so far more than $7.9 billion) Aceh’s economic growth continues to be the lowest in Sumatra. Following the Helsinki peace accord, the Aceh province is entitled to receive special autonomy funds from its central government for twenty years, from 2008 to 2027. So, it is only a few years left and with the rampant corruption and lack of interest from investors it is hard to imagine any changes for a better condition will occur in Aceh. I think poor and disempowered Acehnese Muslims will likely continue to see more perplexing regulations in the region promulgated in the name of Sharia.

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