As Indonesia tries Islamic law, US aims to help

Since the government imposed sharia on one of its provinces in January, the US has been quietly supporting debate

Since January, when Indonesia bestowed Islamic law on Aceh, the country's most rebellious and violence-prone province, debate has raged over how it will work.

Should the war-torn province adopt a Saudi Arabian approach, with amputations for thieves and stoning for adulterers? Or a gentler version that handles most infractions through its existing criminal code?

As the province's people and politicians have tried to sort out these questions, an unlikely facilitator has emerged: the United States.

It's an odd role for the country to take, given US fears that war in Afghanistan and its global effort against terror could strengthen the hand of religious hard-liners in moderate Muslim countries like Indonesia.

That concern has only deepened since an October terror attack on a Bali nightclub killed 190 foreign tourists and Indonesians. The attack is being blamed on a local militant group tied to Al Qaeda.

Yet despite American unease over Islamic revivalism, and an impression in Muslim nations that the US is hostile to Islam, America has quietly sought to engage and influence the process in Aceh, the first – and so far only – province in the world's most populous Muslim country where Islamic law, or sharia, is officially taking root.

"It might seem strange at first, but if sharia law is going to come into force there anyway, it makes sense for the US to try to steer it in a more moderate direction," says a Western aid worker who works on Islamic programs in Indonesia. "If you don't get involved, you could a have a small group of people imposing a narrow view of Islam on the province."

An unlikely facilitator

Essentially, the US is channeling money to nongovernment groups seeking public input on how sharia should be enforced. Efforts this year have included a dialogue between Muslim leaders and members of other religious groups, and a local television program about the potential impacts of the change.

If successful, the Aceh program could provide a model for US efforts in countries like Egypt and Pakistan. In the rest of Indonesia, the US sponsors a multimillion dollar Islam and Civil Society program, to help moderate Muslims get their message out and organize to lobby the government. The project's results have been mixed: fundamentalist organizations have dismissed local partners as US "lackeys."

Why sharia?

Islamic law was bestowed on Aceh last winter – though the province didn't ask for or want it – by Indonesian President Megawati Suk-arnoputri, according to a plan by former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

But the imposition, supposedly an attempt to end a 30-year-old insurgency there, was a bizarre choice, as Islamic law wasn't on the agenda of the rebel forces. The goal of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, who have said they oppose the decision, is to establish an independent Sultanate governing the island of Sumatra.

The GAM's opposition to the imposition of sharia has led some to ask whether the central government is using the laws to paint the Acehnese as fundamentalists in the eyes of the international community.

"We encourage people to be good Muslims, but we don't think it's something for the state to decide," says GAM spokesman Amni Ahmad Marzuki. "We feel Jakarta is using sharia to distract people from the real issues here."

Though sharia formally came into effect at the beginning of this year, implementing legislation has not yet been passed by the provincial legislature – so in practice, its application has been nonexistent.

Typical was a government announcement in March that a 2,500-member religious police force was being formed: There has been little follow-up. Most Acehnese, like most Muslims, say they support sharia in a general sense, but recoil from many of its harsh precepts.

Democracy in action?

Nevertheless, Aceh is a fervently Islamic place, a fact that was readily apparent on a Friday this August in the bustling provincial capital of Banda Aceh. As afternoon prayers approach, shutters go up in front of the general stores, banks, and cafes, and thousands of men and women make their way under the three black domes of the city's gleaming white grand mosque.

After their pause for prayer, 24 men and women file back into a drab conference room at the Kuala Tripa Hotel. They're participating in a public review of the draft laws for sharia sponsored by the Ukhuwa Foundation, an Acehnese NGO, and paid for by the Office of Transitional Initiatives, a branch of the US Agency for International Development. Their hope is to modify the drafts before they're passed by the local legislature, which most Acehnese don't see as representative.

Who makes the law?

A bookish young woman, her glasses framed by an off-white headscarf, wants Indonesian national law to be subordinate to Islamic law. "The Koran," she says, "is the highest law."

A middle-aged man with heavy jowls, a thin mustache, and a black Muslim skullcap disagrees. "The national courts should have oversight. Think about business disputes."

A third participant carefully writes down points on a whiteboard, many to be later incorporated in a new draft of the law.

"This is what democracy is all about," says Taqwaddin, a lawyer and chairman of the Uhkuwa Foundation, beaming at the debate. "You may not end up with exactly what you want, but you give people their say." He says this review wouldn't have been possible without outside support. "We really have to thank the US."

For now, he says, the group's big debate "is the boundary between sharia and civil law. For instance, will thieves' hands be cut off, or not? We don't know yet."

Breaking the mold

The conference at the Kuala Tripa defies conventional ideas about back rooms full of bearded mullahs deciding how the rest of society should live. About half of the participants are women, and all agree to the principle that a representative group of citizens, not just religious leaders, should determine the role of religion in their lives.

Syarifah Rahmatillah, a women's activist, reflects a common view when she says she wasn't happy at first with the imposition of Islamic law by the central government. "We don't need Jakarta to tell us how to be Muslims," she says.

Yet she also says sharia may be a way to decrease the role of the central government in provincial life, and cut into pervasive corruption. "Islam is a peaceful, humanitarian religion, so maybe we can use it for reform," she says. "But if people try to force behavior onto other people, force women to completely cover themselves, that's not Islam. We can't let people become victims of the symbolism."

Vigilante sharia

In isolated cases, that has already happened. Forcing women to wear head-scarves, called jilbab in Indonesia, has been one of the first real changes brought about by the new law. Women who have defied the rule have been harassed on city streets and, in a few cases, arrested and briefly held by the police. "I hate it," says another Acehnese women's activist, who asked that her name not be used. "It's a way to control us."

Some vigilante groups have taken matters into their own hands. On a roadside near Langsa, crude graffiti shows a woman's hair being hacked off with a knife above the warning "Wear your jilbab." Locals confirm that just that happened to some women here earlier this year.

• Coming soon: Sharia law in Malaysia.

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