Toronto Star

Tsunami changed religious tide in Indonesia

Adherence to Islamic law stricter in Aceh province since deadly 2004 disaster


MEULABOH, INDONESIA— It is a little past noon on a Friday, time for Anshari and his troops to spring into action.

Their first stop is outside the gates of Meulaboh’s central mosque, where fruit and vegetable hawkers display their wares. The announceme­nt comes that it’s time for midday prayers, and Anshari’s team, part of the sharia (Islamic law) police, hovers over the street vendors to ensure that they shut down during the minutes of religious observatio­n.

Later in the afternoon, Anshari’s uniformed squad will fan out to coastal spots and other areas where unmarried or unrelated couples may be trying to steal a moment alone. And they’ll be on the lookout for women wearing tight clothing, or anyone drinking alcohol or gambling — all offences under sharia that could result in public caning.

About 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2004, a tsunami welled up from the Indian Ocean and struck Aceh province, which includes Meulaboh. More than 230,000 people in Southeast Asia were killed. In this corner of Indonesia, one result has been a stricter adherence to Islamic law.

Some see it as partly a backlash against the influx of foreign aid workers, who helped build roads and hospitals, but also brought Western values. At the same time, some of Aceh’s Muslim leaders regarded the disaster as punishment for wayward living and began calling for a greater focus on virtue and piety.

Aceh province is known as the “terrace of Mecca” because it’s thought to be where Islam first spread to Southeast Asia, carried from the northernmo­st point on Sumatra.

It’s the only province in Indonesia where implementa­tion of sharia is officially authorized. The arrangemen­t is the result of a 1999 national law that gave Aceh “special status” aimed at ending a separatist war. The tsunami helped end that 30-year conflict by uniting Aceh residents in a common cause, putting the region under internatio­nal scrutiny and wiping out vast numbers of fighters.

Meulaboh, the capital of West Aceh district, has one of the strictest regi- mens for enforcing sharia.

Human Rights Watch blames sharia regulation­s for the closing of at least 17 Christian churches in the past decade and the suppressio­n of other minorities in Aceh, a province of almost 5 million people, nearly 98 per cent of whom are Muslim.

Of added concern to some are recently passed provisions in Aceh that seem to extend the Islamic code of conduct to non-Muslims. Syahrizal Abbas, head of Aceh’s sharia office in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, insists that non-Muslims and foreigners have nothing to fear. Those outside the faith, he said, can elect to follow sharia and its legal system or abide by Indonesia’s national laws.

But in practice, it isn’t so straightfo­rward. National regulation­s aren’t so specific on what’s acceptable clothing or about khalwat, the Islamic “seclusion” code that prohibits unmarried couples from being together in an isolated place. Requiremen­ts that women wear head scarves in government offices or market places don’t distinguis­h between Muslims and non-Muslims.

During the month-long fasting period of Ramadan, non-Muslim business owners in towns like Meulaboh have little choice but to close until mid-afternoon under the threat of raids and punishment.

In Meulaboh, government officials argue that people outside Aceh have a distorted view of sharia enforcemen­t. Jopi Saputra, a West Aceh government spokesman says West Aceh hasn’t caned anyone since 2012.

Cannings throughout the province have been fairly regular, usually carried out with rattan sticks while the person charged is fully clothed.

Non-government­al agencies in Indonesia say such practices aren’t good for Aceh’s image or ability to attract investment, something badly needed in the province.

Alaidinsya­h, West Aceh’s regent and top official, makes no apologies for the way sharia is enforced.

“They see sharia as something that is scary,” he said. “But the main focus, the real meaning of it is to make people understand how to live a good life.”

 ?? ULET IFANSASTI/GETTY IMAGES ?? People in Aceh pray at a mass grave commemorat­ing tsunami victims. Some Muslim leaders regarded the disaster as punishment.
ULET IFANSASTI/GETTY IMAGES People in Aceh pray at a mass grave commemorat­ing tsunami victims. Some Muslim leaders regarded the disaster as punishment.

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