Hard line conservative Islamists are implementing Sharia, or Islamic law, in Indonesia's tsunami ravaged province of Aceh. But many Acehnese oppose religious laws, fearing they are undermining the province's traditions of tolerance and pluralism, and may attract militants to the region.
A man sentenced to seven strokes of the whip for gambling. He placed a bet worth less than a dollar. It is a scene more reminiscent of conservative Saudi Arabia, not of Aceh province. The caning here would have been shocking less than a year ago, but is now becoming all too common as religious police, known locally as Wilayatul Hisbah, implement Sharia law.
Islam in Indonesia
Faud Mardhatillah is an Islamic scholar in Aceh. He thinks the introduction of Sharia is not in keeping with the local culture. "This is the culture of Arabic I think, not the culture of the Acehnese before. They don't have any jilbab," says Faud.
Under Sharia, women must cover their bodies from head to foot and are forbidden from appearing in public without a headscarf, called a jilbab in Indonesia. Alcohol, adultery and intimacy between unmarried couples are banned.
Although men must also cover their bodies, the rule is seldom enforced and men are seen all around Aceh wearing shorts while Sharia police look the other way. But for women, the implementation of Sharia has had a profound effect on their lives. They can no longer go out at night without a male relative, and are subject to random checks by the Sharia police.
A Sharia policeman blows his whistle to pull over two women on a motorcycle at a busy intersection in Banda Aceh because they are not wearing a jilbab under their helmets. Sharia police commander, Raja Radan, waits until police have pulled over several dozen women -- most for not wearing a jilbab -- before lecturing them in a small park near the street. He tells the women they are not following the rules of Sharia and must cover their bodies to follow Islam properly or they face punishment, possibly caning.
Syarifah Rahmatillah, from the Acehnese women's group Flower Aceh, is upset at what is happening in the province. She says women should be respected and no woman should be forced to wear a jilbab. With a population of more then 220 million people, Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any nation on earth. But it is a secular state, where most people follow a moderate form of the faith.
But in Aceh, Sharia was introduced after a special autonomy plan was agreed to for the formerly separatist province. It took effect last year but was slow to be implemented because Aceh -- the region worst hit by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami -- was devastated. Some 169,000 people died and survivors were too busy rebuilding to worry about Sharia. But now, more than a year and a half after the tsunami, Sharia police have become a fixture in the daily lives of Acehnese.
Some Moderate Muslims Resist Sharia
Aceh Islamic scholar Faud says the tsunami actually helped conservatives usher in Sharia, as they lectured a traumatized population that the disaster was punishment for immoral behavior. "They don't have any substantial understanding of Islamic teaching. So anything that they call Sharia law is only related to private affairs, to the private business, something like that. They don't have any understanding in social life for example, in economic life, in political life," says Faud.
The morality crackdown is drawing fire from Muslim moderates here who say Islam is being replaced by an "Arabized" or conservative form. Warzai, a spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement, which ended 30 years of conflict by signing a peace agreement with the government last year, also opposes Sharia law as abusive.
"Actually this kind of Sharia law is against Islam itself. And we stand that we are not asking for sharia law and we are not demanding Sharia law. And we don't want anybody from outside Aceh to tell us how to practice our religion," says Warzai.
While many Acehnese may disagree with Sharia, most remain wary of speaking out publicly for fear it will be interpreted as not supporting Islam. And with conservative Muslims holding sway in Aceh at the moment, some fear the province could become a breeding ground for militant extremism. It is a worrying scenario in a country that has experienced several major terrorist attacks by Islamic militants over the last several years and is home to Jemaah Islamiyah -- a Southeast Asian affiliate of the al-Qaida terrorist organization.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.