A jumble of purposes of
syariah law in Aceh

Kirsten E. Schulze, Senior Lecturer, International History, London School of Economics

Like most other aspects in the conflict in Aceh, the debate on the Islamic syariah law has become highly politicized. On the one extreme, it has been hailed as a mechanism for conflict resolution by Aceh's political elite. On the other, it has been dismissed by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) as a political tool of Jakarta.

Some segments of the Acehnese population have criticized it as a means to silence women, while others have welcomed it as a true reflection of Acehnese culture.

The majority of the ulema hope it will in the long-run lead to a higher level of morality -- an end to corruption, extortion, crime, drug abuse, and prostitution.

This politicization has not only confused the debate on syariah to the extent that its focus seems to have become the jilbab, it has also dangerously obscured the causes of the conflict in Aceh which is not about religion but sovereignty.

The syariah may have been what some Acehnese were fighting for under Teungku Daud Beureueh but it certainly is not what GAM is fighting for. GAM is being driven by the desire for independence rather than a misinterpreted jihad or an Islamic agenda.

Seeing the syariah as a way to bring GAM back into the fold has no real prospects, especially since GAM is highly suspicious that the syariah is being used to turn a vertical conflict into a horizontal one. The belief that the syariah is in some way a mechanism for conflict resolution is thus fundamentally misguided. As is the notion that the syariah is an alternative to full democratization or political dialogue.

The syariah law, in a normative sense, of course, like every other ethically based blueprint for society and like every other religious framework for the interaction between man and God, does promote peace and condemns the use of force. But even in non-conflict situations, societies governed by the syariah are not totally free of violence and corruption. The challenge in conflict situations is all the greater.

Aceh's modernist ulema are especially willing to embrace this challenge, which is why they supported the inclusion of the syariah into the autonomy package. But unlike the politicians who are seeking a quick solution through Islamic symbols such as the jilbab or Arabic script on street signs, the ulema are pursuing a long-term educational approach.

Interesting here is not just the contrast between the politicians focusing on symbols while the ulema are focusing on substance, but that while the politicians see the syariah as a way of dealing with GAM, the ulema see the syariah as a way of dealing with the shortcomings of the politicians.

Their ultimate aim is for the syariah to produce clean governance, social justice, economic equality and ultimately prosperity for all the people of Aceh. They also see the syariah as more in line with the traditional forms of governance as represented by Acehnese custom, or adat. Thus the syariah has become a way of reforming the politicians and the system.

The main problem for the ulema is one of implementation -- where and how the syariah should be applied. Again many of the challenges are obvious. For instance, who will enforce its legal aspects? Some ulema are doubtful whether the police which has not been able to maintain law and order in Aceh in the framework of national law will be any more successful in the framework of Islamic law. Most of the ulema are painfully aware that the police has as little moral authority as the politicians.

In fact, the educational approach, rather than focusing on punishment, reveals that the syariah is again a way of dealing with an inadequate system by hoping that accountability to God in this life or the hereafter will produce what the lack of respect for the police has not -- an end to an essentially lawless society.

Difficult issues of law enforcement, new judges, or mechanisms for zakat distribution of zakat (mandatory alms) are compounded at a national level, which raises the question whether the syariah was not too hastily introduced. This is especially so in light of the argument that most Acehnese were already living by the principles of the syariah and that its formal introduction in that sense has not made a significant difference.

The key question at the national level is, of course, whether the syariah is compatible with Indonesia's constitution. In a practical sense this may result in cases tried under the syariah in Aceh being appealed to the Supreme Court under national law. If the Supreme Court upholds the validity of the syariah it has effectively undermined national law, and if it doesn't the syariah in Aceh isn't worth the paper it was written on.

More fundamentally, the misguided notion of the syariah as a conflict resolution mechanism ultimately aimed at emsuring the unity and integrity of Indonesia, contains the danger of the achieving the opposite.

The syariah in Aceh has set a precedent. What will prevent parts of Sulawesi, Sumatra or Kalimantan from demanding the same right? However, should the syariah indeed become more widespread and even officially included into the Constitution it is doubtful that other parts of Indonesia, especially East Nusa Tenggara and Bali, will just acquiesce.

Beyond doubt, the syariah in Aceh has raised more questions than it has answered. And it certainly is not an answer to the conflict between GAM and Indonesia.

The conflict is not about religion but about sovereignty. Neither is the syariah an alternative to dialog with GAM. However, substantive negotiations, based on good will and clear commitment by all sides may provide a real avenue for dealing with the true causes of the conflict.

Dr. Kirsten E. Schulze is writing a book on conflict and democratization in Indonesia.

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