THREE weeks ago, 23-year-old Wen was chatting with his 20-year-old girlfriend Pipit in broad daylight at a dock in Langsa, Aceh, when three villagers came across the couple and decided to make a quick buck.
“They demanded 400,000 rupiah (RM110) or they would report us to the village head for khalwat (close proximity) and call the syariah police.
“We were not doing anything wrong. We were just sitting and talking and it was daytime!” he says.
But wanting to spare Pipit’s and his parents the shame and humiliation, Wen, a student who works part time at a coffee shop, called up friends, cousins, brothers and a “cool” uncle to borrow the money.
When he went to pick up the money, the three villagers kept his mobile phone as a “guarantee” to make sure he came back with the money.
“They call it wang damai (peace money) or wang cuci kampung (cleansing the village money) but it is nothing more than extortion,” says Wen’s very annoyed 30-year-old uncle Aris who lent him some money and agreed not to squeal on his nephew to the parents.
Wen makes only 800,000 rupiah (RM220) and the “cleansing money” would take up half his pay cheque for the month.
Aris says that with the increased emphasis on syariah law in Aceh, such vigilante groups have sprouted up in villages. Since the syariah police cannot be everywhere, these vigilante groups take it upon themselves to be the “eyes and ears” of the syariah police.
But Aris notes that a number too are exploiting the situation to make a quick buck for themselves and young courting couples are often the prey.
Dini and Edy have been seeing each other for two years but because of the vigilantes and syariah police, they make sure when they meet after dark, it is at a well-lit public place and other people are around too.
“This is no longer the ancient times where parents do the matchmaking. We want to be able to meet someone we like, go out and see if this is the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with. What’s wrong with that?” asks Dini, who was out on a date with Edy at a public park in Banda Aceh at night.
In Aceh, offences under the syariah law are confined to khalwat and zina (adultery), gambling, drinking alcohol and not fulfilling religious obligation such as not going for Friday prayers, not fasting during the Ramadan or not being appropriately dressed (for Muslim women, it means covering their hair and not wearing tight-fitting clothes, and for men it means not wearing shorts above the knee, torn jeans, earrings, piercings and not sporting long hair).
“They want uniformity but we are not robots. We want room for self expression. We want to play our music. It’s not like we are stealing or committing robbery,” says 22-year-old Din, who was wearing an anti-war T-shirt, torn jeans and carrying a ukelele. He was wearing a cap because the syariah police caught him three days ago and chopped off his long hair.
However, Mursalin, the head of the syariah police in northern Aceh, prefers a more educational approach.
He says punishing people might not be so effective if people do not realise that what they are doing is wrong or goes against the religion and moral etiquette.
“We believe in building people up spiritually first,” he adds.
Hence his team of 94 syariah police in northern Aceh have been going down to the kampung and schools over the past few years to educate people on the do’s and don’ts, including how not to dress.
Mursalin says they found from their evaluation that parents these days are not as focused on the religious education of their children as before, “so now that duty falls on the shoulder of the syariah police”.
“Because there is less pressure from parents towards their children these days, we are the ones who have to step up and do our utmost in monitoring and supervising so that people don’t go astray.”
Other than monitoring unmarried couples and the way people dress, he says, the syariah police is also on the lookout for schoolchildren who skip school and are playing games in cybercafes, which to him is “a waste of time”.
“When we come across schoolchildren playing truant, we call up their parents and also their school,” he says.
As for the other syariah offences like gambling, drinking alcohol and khalwat, Mursalin says, because of greater awareness the syariah police are not the main ones catching the so-called offenders.
“The kampung folks are the ones doing it. But we tell them not to play judge and jury and to telephone us so that we can come and look into the case.”
Mursalin, who comes from Pesantren (Islamic boarding school), would have cringed if he knows of how some viligante kampung folks are doing the “catch” solely to extort money as in the case of Wen and Pipit.
In Aceh, the syariah offences can carry a sentence of a fine or public caning or both.
“What is the meaning if someone is caned three times? It is not the physical pain but the shame he feels being caned in front of the community. And if he runs away and disappears before the punishment is carried out, that is in itself a punishment because he has been forced to leave his kampung.”
Mursalin, however, is not in favour of public caning because he feels it discriminates, as the rich can pay a fine and avoid being caned, while the poor are caned.
“The target is a holistic approach but we need to go slowly to get it all in order,” he says.
Juanda Djamal from the Aceh Civil Society Task Force is all praise for Aceh’s governor Zaini Abdullah’s efforts to strengthen Islam in the province.
He says the governor is trying to imbue Islamic values and philosophy in the economy, politics, education, culture and as a way of life.
But, he points out, some quarters oppose this and want greater emphasis only on the syariah law at the surface layer rather than something deeper and substantive.
“Don’t forget Islamic law was actually a ‘project’ imposed on Aceh by Jakarta in 2003 when they put us under martial law. There was no discussion and we couldn’t criticise it. Jakarta, which was then fighting to quell the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) resistance, did it, based on their own political interest because they wanted to mould international public opinion against us and show that Aceh’s demands for independence was only because we wanted Islamic law and nothing else,” says Juanda.
Things changed in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami which killed more than 100,000 people and a peace accord was reached between the Indonesian government and GAM for great autonomy and special rights.
Juanda says that after years of conflict and the tsunami, it will take Aceh a while to heal the trauma, rehabilitate its socio-economy and build a foundation for the future.
For him, the current implementation of the Islamic law is narrow and superficial because core issues like corruption of the leaders are not being tackled.
“We always ask why a person who stole a chicken is publicly caned, but a leader who steals the rakyat’s money gets away with it? Why are our leaders not inclined to look at fundamental problems than trivial matters?
“We tend to come to the conclusion that it is because the leaders themselves are corrupt and protecting themselves. We don’t want the implementation of the syariah to be in this form because it unjustly targets the small fry and not the elite. When punishment is unfairly meted out, it tarnishes the image and good name of Islam,” he says.
There have been syariah cases in Aceh where the NGOs have been angry about.
Last year, 16-year-old Putri committed suicide after a newspaper published her name alleging she was a prostitute when all she did was hang out with friends in a park. The syariah police had given her name to the media, claiming the underage girl was soliciting.
Then earlier this month, a 25-year-old divorcee who was suspected of having an affair with a married man was caught by eight youth vigilantes who then allegedly raped her. In another incident, a few years ago, two syariah police raped a university student whom they apprehended because she was on a motorbike with her boyfriend.
Juanda says NGOs have written to the governor asking him to speak up on these issues but to date, there has been no response.
“I feel he cares about what is happening but I think his leadership is weak so he isn’t saying anything,” he says.
Nur Siti, who is one of the heads of the Balai Syura, an umbrella body of 40 women organisations in Aceh, says there has been a number of challenges for women activists.
She says that after Putri hanged herself, women groups who demanded a public apology from the syariah police in Langsa for maligning Putri “got attacked (verbally) and terrorised” for speaking up.
And just a few months ago, at a launch of a Domestic Violence against Women Campaign in Jakarta, a headline “Women of Aceh feel stifled by the syariah” caused an uproar in Aceh.
“Our women were threatened and one had to evacuate and leave Aceh temporarily while things cooled down. It is extremely sensitive when we discuss about Islam and the practices. If we say the implementation is not up to the mark, we are condemned as having shamed Aceh and Islam; some even say it is halal to shed our blood and kill us!
“This disturbs us psychologically and our freedom to work and our boldness to speak up. So we need to strategise. There may be times when we need to lie low but the fight against injustice will still go on,” she says.