The Jakarta Post
Hundreds of citizens from all over Banda Aceh thronged to Ule Lheue Beach to relax and enjoy the weekend atmosphere under the light of the full moon that evening.
Parents and children were sitting and savoring roast corn sold on the sidewalks leading to the port.
The port area of Ule Lheue is a favorite place for Banda Aceh residents to relish the beauty of the beach, which is not far from the city hub and also offers a gorgeous display of urban lights reflecting off the water.
But the crowds became agitated when a group of teenagers hanging around in pairs was suddenly caught by surprise by a raid launched by personnel of Wilayatul Hisbah (WH) or the sharia police, which enforce Islamic rules of conduct.
Traveling in two open pickup trucks, the sharia police officers rushed to Ule Lheue port, seizing several young couples sitting near the roast corn stall. They could do nothing when WH personnel told them to stand in line and recorded their personal data. “They shouldn’t have been sitting in pairs in the dark,” Efendi, the WH commander in Banda Aceh, said.
Efendi said Ule Lheue is a hotspot for people violating Islamic sharia law. That’s why WH members often patrol and conduct raids in the area, particularly when youths descend on the unlit location on weekends. “Going in pairs in the dark can lead to indecent conduct and infringement of sharia law,” he added.
The teenagers were charged with breaching sharia law by being together in pairs in the dark. In fact, however, there were hundreds of other young couples around the area. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We’re just eating roast corn and enjoying the weekend evening,” Syafrudin, a student from Central Aceh, said.
Syafrudin and his girlfriend were taken to the WH office for questioning and received religious advice. WH personnel usually record sharia violators’ data and hold their identity cards so they have to report to the office three times. “In the three visits, we provide guidance on sharia rules and ethical behavior,” Efendi explained.
It is not always easy for WH police to handle sharia violators. Disputes and arguments have frequently arisen between offenders and WH personnel over moral and sharia issues. In this case,
the WH police may take a lenient stance or the offenders may bow to WH demands and listen to religious lectures.
“Not all violators feel comfortable accepting our religious advice, which is even more the case when they are from a certain background, such as the military or police,” Efendi said. He added it was not as simple as people thought to be a moral policeman, as the responsibility to maintain Aceh’s public morality was great.
Therefore, Efendi said, he had to strive to be a good model for society. “How can we improve other people’s moral conduct if we as moral policemen fail to display decent behavior?” he said.
Efendi is from the first batch of WH personnel recruited by the Aceh government following the implementation of sharia law in 2004. He was inaugurated as a WH member in 2005 when the Banda Aceh administration formed a WH agency for the city.
Wilayatul Hisbah was reintroduced to Aceh after centuries of popularity in the time of Prophet Muhammad, as a body of public alert and control, with the duty of keeping society aware of the rules in force and to be observed especially with regard to Islamic sharia law.
Literally, Wilayatul means an area of authority and Hisbah is to count or estimate, in Arabic. In general, Wilayatul Hisbah is an agency set up and funded by the government with the authority to control the implementation of sharia, take stern action against offenders of the law and provide assistance for those in need of help. Broadly speaking, the WH police can be likened to modern-day law enforcers such as the police or prosecutor’s office.
“So the main duty of WH personnel is to control and alert people to violations of sharia rules,” Efendi said. So far, some 23 regencies in Aceh have established WH agencies in the province.
Most current WH members are graduates of Aceh’s Ar Raniry State Islamic Institute. “They are mostly sharia law and religious propagation graduates from the institute,” Efendi noted
As commandant of the sharia police, Efendi leads 56 WH members for the city of Banda Aceh. Of the 56 members, 15 are female. The force is considered insufficient to carry out sharia supervision for the whole of Banda Aceh.
“Ideally, for the Banda Aceh population of around 400,000, some 1,000 WH members are needed to ensure proper control,” Nur Aminah, spokeswoman for Banda Aceh’s female WH squad, said.
Besides being the spokeswoman, Nur Aminah also heads the WH women due to her seniority.
Nur Aminah joined the WH in 2005 when WH women were recruited for Banda Aceh. Nur Aminah was drawn to joining WH because she wished to apply the knowledge she studied at the Ar-Raniry State Islamic Institute.
After several years of service with the sharia police, Nur Aminah described the application of sharia law in Aceh today as not fully appropriate and correct. She blamed the situation on the intense flow of modern information through the media as well as the Internet.
“As a result, a lot of youth and women in Aceh follow external cultural trends. Besides, it’s hard for WH personnel to control Aceh’s public moral conduct if society itself is unwilling to exercise self control,” she added.
As sharia police personnel, Efendi and Nur Aminah have aspirations of creating a clean Aceh adhering to Islamic sharia rules of conduct. ”But it’s very difficult to achieve. What we can do is to minimize and prevent the infringement of sharia law in our society,” Nur Aminah concluded.
— Photos by Hotli Simanjuntak