Sharia in Aceh still strong after tsunami

Greg Roberts
AAP, 18 December 2014

Given how loaded the word sharia is in Australia today, it is significant that barely a decade ago Australians came together to help an Asian Islamic powerhouse.

Religious sharia law is enforced in Aceh, unlike the rest of Indonesia, including public floggings for offences that are legal in Australia.

There was little mention of that when the plight of Aceh’s tsunami victims broke Australians’ hearts, with well over half of the record $US1 billion-plus in government aid and donations going to the Acehnese.

“That was symbolically important, that the ‘Christian’ west came to help,” World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello said during his visit this month to make 10 years since the tsunami.

Australia and Indonesia’s relationship has probably never been better.

“In Australia we have completely underestimated how moving and powerful that was for the Indonesian government and people who said: they really like us and really see us as part of their region and part of their ethical concern,” he said.

Aceh has a reputation for being the most hospitable place in Indonesia, as well as the most devout.

If you lose your mobile phone or wallet there, the person who finds it will contact you to return it.

It was also a closed society before the tsunami, partly because of the 30 year civil war with the separatists.

The enforcement of sharia was ramped up after the tsunami in response to the fact thatAceh became inundated with the disruptive influence of westerners working for foreign NGOs.

There was international outrage earlier this year when a 25-year-old woman, a widow, was gang-raped by eight vigilantes in Aceh who handed out their own sharia justice because the woman was in a relationship with a married man.

The man and woman were still publicly caned after that by the sharia police – a man and woman who are not married cannot even meet alone under sharia.

“Bad things happen when people try to enforce sharia from their own interpretation,”Acehnese women’s activist and lawyer Azrina said.

“Women get sexually harassed and in some cases gang raped.”

Ms Azrina says the NGOs helped improve the status of women in Aceh, providing legal assistance for women who have suffered domestic abuse.

Religion has been a major healer.

People from all walks of life: fisherman, tour guides, teachers say they were able to rebuild their lives with such horrific loss because Allah gave them strength.

As much as the help from the NGOs was embraced, they had worn out their welcome three years after the tsunami and left.

“With so many foreigners here it introduced new values and went from a very isolated society to one that was being influenced from foreigners,” says Dr Ella Meilianda, program manager at the university-backed Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Centre, which is currently preparing a report on the state of the province 10 years on.

“That was the starting point of moral degradation.”

Alcohol and illicit drug use, and pregnancies out of wedlock are statistically up, according to Dr Meilianda.

Aceh is not Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Women go to school and work. When you get a local SIM card for you phone it is a young lady selling it – wearing a hijab. Women represent 14 per cent of the Acehnese parliament.

Greg Roberts first travelled to Aceh with APJC in 2005, and returned with APJC in 2014.