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Indonesian province turns up Sharia law after devastating tsunami

August 19, 2014 at 6:38 PM EST
Islamic Sharia law was fairly dormant in the Indonesian province of Aceh until a massive earthquake and tsunami struck in 2004, killing more than 130,000. But as residents rebuild, Sharia officers have strengthened their grip, threatening rights of religious minorities and women. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to Indonesia, where one province, in the wake of the devastating tsunami of 2004, has embraced Islamic Sharia law.

Special correspondent Kira Kay recently traveled to Aceh province, where she was given special access to the religious police force, to bring us this inside look at how Sharia is impacting the everyday life of residents.

KIRA KAY: It’s Friday noon, time for the most important prayers of the week at mosques around the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh.

Besides the call to prayer, you can hear another sound on the streets, the loudspeaker from the Sharia police patrol.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Exit and head to the mosque in order to do Friday prayers.

KIRA KAY: Shops and restaurants are supposed to be closed during prayers, but these Sharia officers are tipped off by the motorbikes parked out front the seemingly shuttered entrances, and they break up the clandestine lunch plans of this roomful of men.

Alongside a secular legal system, Aceh enforces an official policy of Sharia. While most offenses draw only a scolding from police, there is a court system to try more serious cases, with public caning the ultimate punishment.

Ritasari Pujiastuti is the chief of Banda Aceh’s Sharia police.

RITASARI PUJIASTUTI, Chief, Sharia Police Force (through interpreter): The most common infractions we find are un-Islamic behavior, like not wearing proper clothing. Next is being alone with someone who is not your spouse, particularly in quiet places, and then gambling. We also find a lot of alcoholic drinks. We also get reports from citizens telling us whenever a Sharia violation happens in a given neighborhood.

KIRA KAY: Sitting at the northernmost tip of Indonesia, Aceh is nicknamed the verandah of Mecca. Islam first came to the country through here.

Aceh fought a three-decade war for independence from the rest of Indonesia. It didn’t win, but was given special autonomy that included Sharia. So far, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia to be given this special right.

Banda Aceh Mayor Illiza Sa’Aduddin has made Sharia a priority.

MAYOR ILLIZA SA’ADUDDIN DJAMAL, Banda Aceh (through interpreter): We are very proud that Aceh got to do this first, that this blessing was bestowed on us. Even though there are shortcomings, we are glad to be able to live under Sharia.

KIRA KAY: The system sat fairly dormant until after 2004, when a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami rocked Aceh, killing 130,000 people. Many citizens felt the disaster was God’s punishment for their lack of devoutness, evidenced by the mosques that remained standing amidst fields of rubble.

Acehnese renewed their dedication to their faith. The tsunami recovery process also opened up long-closed Aceh to the world, and its vices, says police chief Ritasari.

RITASARI PUJIASTUTI (through interpreter): We need to constantly monitor people’s behaviors by patrol or raid because there are a lot of outside influences coming from all sides. We are safeguarding people, particularly the younger generation, who are drawn towards this wave of globalization.

KIRA KAY: Mayor Sa’Aduddin says Sharia is part of Aceh’s rebuilding process.

ILLIZA SA’ADUDDIN DJAMAL (through interpreter): We are really grateful to everyone who has helped us with the recovery and rehabilitation. Without their help, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Our challenge is to ensure that Islamic values remain in people’s hearts, so that we can build on this development in a positive way, through a generation that contributes to society.

KIRA KAY: Among young citizens of Aceh, there’s some surprising agreement with the concerns of the mayor and police chief. Sanusi was stopped by the Sharia police for driving with female friends after dark.

SANUSI (through interpreter): I was nervous when it happened, but I feel the rules are good for society, especially to guide the lives and behaviors of young people. Yes, sometimes, we feel embarrassed or annoyed, but when the Sharia police give us words of advice, we understand they are for the good of all.

EVA AGUSTINA (through interpreter): Personally, I feel comfortable. I can also express myself with the latest Islamic fashion.

KIRA KAY: At the Islamic university, young students debate the laws amongst themselves.

MASHITAH (through interpreter): People view the Sharia as something extreme. But I think Sharia is there to establish boundaries, not to imprison us.

SEPTIA MULIA (through interpreter): I don’t agree that everything should be regulated. I think it is us who should regulate ourselves, not the government who establishes what we can or can’t do.

KIRA KAY: The restrictions on young people are significant, because Sharia prohibits the close interactions of unmarried people. Banda Aceh’s only cinema was shut down, and the music scene has been censored, with some of the city’s famous punks themselves convicted of Sharia violations.

Young people can still go to the beach, but it closes at dark to avoid improper behavior, causing traffic jams at the gate. Billboards sponsored by the city remind citizens that unmarried couples cannot be alone together. This young couple knows they are breaking the law, but they have nowhere else to go and are willing to take the risk.

Other youth have taken a cat-and-mouse approach, like these young women, who are wearing lawbreaking, though stylish, pencil pants.

DEWI NURHALIZA (through interpreter): We just have to be careful. If we see the Sharia police, we run.

NURUL FITRI (through interpreter): Of course we won’t just stand there and get arrested. I could never bear the shame.

KIRA KAY: But beyond these lifestyle infringements lurk more serious human rights concerns, as Aceh’s interpretation of Sharia broadens.

ANDREAS HARSONO, Human Rights Watch: By giving the Sharia to Aceh, the Indonesians basically opened the Pandora’s box.

KIRA KAY: Andreas Harsono is with Human Rights Watch.

ANDREAS HARSONO: There are two groups that are actually threatened by this formalization of the Sharia. The first group is religious minorities. More than 20 churches are closed down in Aceh over the last two years. They also banned 14 Islamic religious sects, like the Ahmadiyya, the Shia. We didn’t expect that.

The second victim is women. There are various, strange regulations being produced, for instance, banning women from straddling motorcycles. In some areas, women cannot wear pants to go to work or to go to school, which means that it will restrict their mobilities. Ultimately, it will affect their economic rights. Ultimately, it will affect their education.

KIRA KAY: We were given special access to follow the Sharia police on their daily rounds.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We often come to parks like this, because we can see people dating or not wearing Muslim dress. We try to give them guidance on the scene. But if the violation is more serious, we will bring it to the office.

KIRA KAY: We noticed women being targeted a lot more than men. These store clerks were chased because their uniforms were immodest. So was this mom for not wearing a head scarf. And this troubling scene, the berating of a young woman in the parking lot, after being caught having an affectionate outing with her boyfriend.

WOMAN (through interpreter): You will bring shame to your village. Do you understand?

AZRIANA MANALU, Lawyer, LBH Apik Aceh (through interpreter): When a man violates Sharia, people see it as a misdemeanor. But when it’s a woman, she is automatically seen as a sinner who has no place in society.

KIRA KAY: Azriana Manalu is a lawyer advocating for women facing serious Sharia violations. She says accusations of adultery are particularly traumatizing for women, but even simpler charges can ruin lives.

In 2010, two young women were caned because they were caught selling rice during Ramadan. After their public punishment, Manalu says, they fled their homes for good.

AZRIANA MANALU (through interpreter): The worst kind of punishment for women is the social stigma, even excommunication they receive from their communities. The caning hurts them for only one or two days, but the condemnation is something they will face for the rest of their lives.

KIRA KAY: Manalu also fears that communal tensions are rising as neighbors turn each other in.

AZRIANA MANALU (through interpreter): I don’t think Sharia is what people need right now. What we need is for victims of past conflict to live peacefully. We also need to put an end to corruption. These things should be taken seriously by the government, not this priority on Sharia enforcement.

KIRA KAY: Mayor Sa’Aduddin admits improvements are needed but remains firmly committed to Sharia.

MAYOR ILLIZA SA’ADUDDIN DJAMAL (through interpreter): We don’t want the officers to be authoritarian. They must truly understand their function is not to just punish people, but also to explain why they do this, and tell people not to take the law into their own hands. There must also be clear legal procedures, with witnesses and evidence.

KIRA KAY: There are now new bylaws extending Aceh’s Sharia rules to non-Muslims. For the first time this past Ramadan, Christian Chinese food shops were forced to close during the fasting period, a troubling development for a country long known for its moderate form of Islam.

Meanwhile, other parts of Indonesia are beginning to see Aceh as a model, sending local officials to observe the implementation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This report is part of the Fault Lines of Faith series produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.