01/12/2013, 00.00
INDONESIA - ISLAM
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Further implementation of Sharia in Aceh to cause greater social tensions

by Mathias Hariyadi
Many fear a split between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims. Political expediency and poor governance are the driving force behind the province's islamisation. Critics slam the province's morality police for its crackdown on deviant behaviour. In 2012, 50 cases of Sharia-related violence were recorded.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Increasingly, Sharia will be enforced ever more forcefully in Aceh province, the only jurisdiction in Indonesia (the world's most populous Muslim nation) where Islamic law is in place, this according to experts and representatives of civil society groups, informed by recent reports by independent bodies and statements by the province's new governor Zaini Abdullah, who is more inflexible than his predecessor Irwandy Jusuf,

After spending many years in exile in Sweden, Abdullah made the introduction of Sharia a key element in his election campaign. The imposition of Islamic law was also one of the main demands made by the separatist movement to end its war with the central government.

Some of the measures of Islamisation of the province include a ban on women straddling two-wheeled vehicles in the District of Lhokseumawe and a dress code that bars women from wearing jeans and miniskirts.

Some experts warn that this trend might lead to a divided society with a widening gap between moderate Muslims and fundamentalist groups, backed by local administrators interested in "power games". In fact, many moral and related controversies are only attempts to cover up incompetence and poor governance and distract public opinion from the real economic and social problems.

Speaking to AsiaNews, anthropologist Teuku Kemal Fasya, who teaches at the Malikussaleh University in Lhokseumawe, said that enforcing Sharia is fraught with dangers and could lead to further violence.

For the scholar, who is involved in inter-faith dialogue, a disparity is emerging between the way Islamic law is being enforced and the importance people give to it in everyday life.

Many Acehnese object to the way 'cultural identity' is being manipulated and turned into a 'political icon'. This could lead to abuses in the future.

"People are happy to see women wear the veil (jilbad) in public, but they resent the morality police's heavy handedness," he explained.

There is also some exasperation with the way the rules are unfairly imposed in matters of morality and behaviour, especially when the women involved are poor and living on the margins of society. Too often, suspected offenders are subjected to corporal punishment "without a trial or legal representation".

Students at Qur'anic schools and middle class people without adequate religious training are the most favourable to a total application of Sharia.

In addition to the physical violence, verbal abuse and threats of violence are up. Attacks against people who oppose Aceh's cultural traits are also rising, Prof Teuku said.

Destika Gilang Lestari, a provincial coordinator with the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), agrees. In 2012, she said, there were 50 Sharia-related cases of violence, up from 47 in 2011.

On moral issues, tolerance of violence remains strong in Aceh. "There were 16 cases in which people accused of unlawful sexual relations were assaulted," she noted, mostly by "mobs of local residents who had reportedly caught the couples engaged in sex acts," which under Sharia "are unlawful".

Members of the Wilayatul Hisbah are among the worst perpetrators of violence. When it comes to women riding motorcycles, these self-styled guardians of Islamic law show no mercy.

Kontras recorded 23 cases of violence related to illegal sex acts, 11 cases during Wilayatul Hisbah raids and six cases of caning of Sharia offenders.

"What is certain," Destika Gilang Lestari said, "is that the acts of violence related to Sharia will increase."

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