Policing Morality

by Raphaella Friedman and Jeffrey Kaiser:

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Cars and motorbikes streak through the colonnade of uniformed men, hoping to evade being stopped. An officer blows his whistle, points at a young woman on a motor scooter, and directs her to the side of the road. This is no ordinary roadside checkpoint: It is an operation of the Sharia police of Banda Aceh. He tells her that her leggings are unacceptable and reveal too much of her aurat, a word from the Qur’an which refers generally to sex appeal. Visibly annoyed, the woman is forced to sign her name in a book, acknowledging that she has been stopped and reminded of the appropriate dress and conduct under Sharia law. After a senior officer lectures her about her appearance she is free to go.

The province of Aceh has earned a reputation as a conflict-ridden terrorist base, cursed by its location on the volatile tectonic plates that caused the infamous 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Now, even after a cautious peace and rebuilding effort, the autonomous northernmost tip of the island of Sumatra is under the limelight again, both within Indonesia and internationally, for its formal adoption of Islamic Sharia law.

An officer at the checkpoint tries to stop a young woman on a motorcycle whose clothes are considered are considered too revealing. (Kaiser/TYG)

This turn of events in Indonesia’s most divergent province, known for its piety, did not surprise or alarm most city-dwellers in Jakarta. Despite Indonesia’s Muslim majority, there is a sense that this formal application of Islam is quarantined in Aceh, and will remain that way, unwanted by the consumer culture that has come to dominate the country’s major cities.

The club of countries that have officially implemented Sharia law, at least partially, is exclusive and includes Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indonesia, however, is a secular democracy and has little in common with these extremist states. The presence of the Sharia police in Aceh has become the public face of the recent implementation of Islamic law. Known locally as the Wilayatul Hisbah, or, more affectionately, WeHa, they are a vice and virtue patrol supplementing the traditional police. Representations of the police force in international media have reinforced Western stereotypes of Islam as an inherently radical religion. A scandal earlier this year in which three Sharia police officers were accused of raping a student also contributed to a tainted image. This negative public image has hurt a province struggling to promote a fledgling tourism industry, part of a broader economic recovery and growth strategy. It also belies the complexity of the democratic process that allowed Sharia into 21st century Aceh in the first place.

On the northernmost tip of Sumatra, waves break against the newly constructed rocky shoreline. This site, once the small port of ulee Lheu, is tsunami ground zero. Women clad in hijabs laugh and chatter alongside men, some of whom peacefully fish, catching the last orange and pink rays of the setting sun. The smell of roasted corn rises temptingly from street vendors as a few remaining motorcycles zoom along the quiet, dusty streets back toward the center of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. Sleepy and innocuous, it hardly seems like the kind of place tourists should fear.

Islam arrived in Aceh on 9th century trading ships, making the province the inaugural home of Islam in Southeast Asia and earning it the nickname Veranda of Mecca. By the 17th century, Aceh had established itself as a major regional power and a leader in Islamic scholarship. In 2001, after decades of civil war and strife, Jakarta expanded Aceh’s special autonomy status, giving the historically devout province the right to implement Sharia law. Ahmad Syafiimufid, a researcher at the Ministry of Religion, traced the push for Sharia back to Aceh’s idyllic era of welfare and justice in the 14th century under the rule of Sultan Iskandar Muda. “Many Achenese will back to this period,” he said, labeling the theory kembali ke gampong, or, “going back to the village.”

Most profiles of Aceh’s religiosity, whether in the BBC or the Lonely Planet guidebook, tend to misrepresent both the scope of Sharia law and the power of the Sharia police. Designed to provide guidance to those who have violated Muslim codes of morality, the force lacks the power to arrest. They provide no alternative criminal justice—a Sharia court is responsible for sentencing. Punishments are never more severe than caning, which are harsh but relatively minor in a system that has traditionally allowed for death by stoning. Under-funded and understaffed, the force patrolled only three times during the month of May. At a two-hour checkpoint on May 26, the force stopped 118 citizens. Most were chided for dressing inappropriately—for men, shorts and for women, pants considered too revealing, sleeveless tops, or uncovered hair—and then sent on their way.

Near the end of the operation two women were stopped, one wearing a sleeveless shirt, the other without head covering. The most serious offenders of the day, they were held for nearly 20 minutes and hassled by a number of officers. One threatened to take them back to the station in order to “fix them.” The two were forced in front of local TV cameras covering the operation. A handful of the officers snapped pictures on their camera phones. Public humiliation is one of the goals and is effective in preventing repeat offenses, according to a number of senior officers present. Away from the crowd, one of the two women quietly admitted that she was scared but that this treatment is fair. “I know I am not dressed appropriately,” she said. Evi Zain, director of the Aceh Human Rights NGOs Coalition, is one of few Muslim women in Banda Aceh who chooses to sit in a coffee shop without a head covering. Still, she has a bright green scarf on standby, casually draped around her neck, ready for a surprise visit from the Sharia police. As she deplored human rights violations, Zain expressed the greatest disappointment with the squandered potential of Sharia to help society. “Sharia law is an important part of culture. We want it to help women, help children, promote welfare—but it doesn’t do that,” she said.

For Zain, government debates focused on the more surface-level mandates of Sharia are detracting from progress in other areas. “They’re thinking about implementing Sharia law and not about other things. There is no tourism, no mall, no movie theatre. There is no space for free expression,” said Zain, visibly exasperated.

A college student who wished to remain anonymous because his father is a member of Parliament complained of the lack of freedom. “I dislike them [the Sharia police] because they disturb us,” he said, recounting an instance when he and his girlfriend were hassled near a beach because she was wearing jeans. “Teenagers, we want to be free men, but the old people like my father, they think with another brain.” While Sharia law may have been acceptable ten years ago, he argued, today’s globalized world does not allow for many of the traditions of a bygone social order.


“We, the Sharia police, deal with humanity, the security of the people, religious security,” said M. Kasim Idris, the sekretariat of the Sharia police in Banda Aceh. Idris cuts an endearing figure at five feet tall, standing proudly in his stately and highly decorated uniform. He is an older man, and the thought of his role in protecting the young generation of Acehnese Muslims from moral corruption brings tears to his eyes.

But Idris does not hesitate to relate the other, less cushy side of his mandate. The Sharia police bring gamblers, adulterers and drinkers before Islamic courts and facilitate their punishment: public lashings in front of a mosque.

“The lashings do not hurt so badly,” assured Idris. “The lashing is meant to cause shame, so that one can learn. Mentally, if three lashes happen in front of your wife, your children and the community, it is very painful. you will not do it again.”

Yarmen Dinamika, managing editor at Serambi, Aceh’s premier newspaper, conceded that public humiliation was sometimes effective: “Before the Sharia law, vigilantes always took matters into their own hands. But after, the number of vigilantes declined and also, adultery declined. Gambling went down 80 percent after the cambuk [canings]. It is effective,” he said. He did not cite the source of these figures.

Idris noted that tourists and Indonesians of other faiths are exempt from punishment. “If you want to drink or have sex, go to the hotel room,” he said dismissively. However, he added that the actions of visitors should not impede the ability of residents to follow Sharia. If a foreigner ignores an initial warning, after drinking or gambling in a public place, the police will either ask him to leave or take him before a religious court of his own faith for judgment.

As he closed the door behind him at the police headquarters, Idris asked, “Do you still believe we are violating human rights?” His eyes pleaded.


Behind his smiling exterior, Rahmadani “Danny” Bus is well aware of the daily challenge he faces as the Director of Tourism Promotion for Aceh. Day after day he sells his mantra—“Aceh is safe, Aceh is attractive, Aceh is convenient”—to potential tourists who see nothing more than the headlines about such public canings, earthquakes and terrorist bases on the BBC and in the pages of the Jakarta Post. Tourism has become increasingly important to Aceh as part of the post-tsunami, post-conflict economic reconstruction, as the province is weaned off of foreign aid and looks to develop a sustainable local economy.

Bus has attempted to counter the common perceptions of Aceh through a unique marketing strategy. In his mind, Sharia law is not incompatible with tourism: “Some people may think that Sharia is a problem,” he said. “But it will not go away, so we try to think that Sharia will be a part of the tourism we develop in Aceh,” suggesting that Sharia itself may be an attraction for some visitors. Bus does recognize the the Sharia police play in deterring visitors, particularly those from abroad. “Tourism must be convenient,” he said.

The Lonely Planet guidebook for Indonesia has a special box in the chapter on Aceh warning tourists about the presence of the Sharia police. Reading the list of laws, many of which are exaggerated or simply false, Bus’s normally cheerful face turned dark. “This is slander,” he said. Even more so than factual mistakes, he was disturbed by the representation of his beloved province as a potentially hostile environment to tourists.

Bus knows he won’t be attracting the Bali crowd anytime soon, believes he is targeting a different sort of market that is also profitable. “The kind of tourist who comes, the never thinking of sex tourism, or gamble tourism—they’ll come for culture, hospitality,” he said. Tsunami tourism, he believes, has particular appeal. In the city of Banda Aceh alone there are numerous monuments and a museum devoted to the 2004 disaster. A fishing boat still perched atop the remains of a home where it came to rest when the water receded is a powerful reminder of the devastation that swept this place.

To some, though, particularly in Aceh’s private sector, the idea of building such a tourism industry is a mere pipe dream. Mendel Pols, a Dutch expatriate and jungle tour operator in Aceh, does not buy into Bus’s vision. “As long as you still outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages you will not be able to sell the place to westerners,” he said. Pols’s company struggles to rake in revenue, often guiding only one tour group a month.

Still, Aceh’s tourism ministry believes the ideal solution is a tourist industry based on culture and religion as opposed to sex and alcohol. “The dollar is not everything,” explained Danny. “We need that dollar for economic recovery… but we also need to maintain our culture and our religion.” For now, Bus is content to limit his market to domestic and regional tourists. Western and international tourism is a long-term goal. “We don’t want to distort our values by creating a gambling spot,” he said. Preserving morality in society is a priority to many in Aceh especially in keeping away future evil. “We believe that tragedy attacked us because we did wrong, and this is a widespread belief,” said Bus, referring to the 2004 tsunami. “We believe that we have another life after this, and the Sharia police help us as moral guides.”


Decentralization within Aceh has allowed district leaders to implement laws even more strict than those passed by the provincial parliament. In Meulaboh in West Aceh, the district head recently banned women from wearing pants. yet for most Achenese these restrictions, like the actions of the Sharia police, are mere annoyances; day-to-day life remains unchanged. In this nearly homogenous Muslim society, most citizens adhere to the moral code prescribed by Sharia out of personal choice, not for fear of retribution. Those who seek relief from the moral mandate escape to Medan on the weekends where gambling and drinking is commonplace, siphoning much-needed capital away from Aceh. This does not bode well for the growth of Aceh’s own tourism industry.

For some, Sharia law may be the best set of guidelines for living a moral life, but its forced implementation over an entire community is at best a challenge and at worst a calamity marred by bad press and flagrant human rights violations. Faced with a choice between Sharia tourism or the beaches and bikinis of Bali, many tourists opt for the latter.

Raphaella Friedman ’12 is a Political Science major in Trumbull College. Jeffrey Kaiser ’12 is a Political Science major in Saybrook College. Contact them at raphaella.friedman@yale.edu and jeffrey.kaiser@yale.edu.