“Excuse me,” says Iskandar, as his mobile phone beeps for the umpteenth time in the past half hour. It’s another anonymous tip-off, alerting him to a young couple who have been seen spending time together alone.
Iskander is head of the Wilayatul Hisbah, a special police unit that enforces Islamic law, or sharia, in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Teams of his officers patrol the Acehnese capital several times a day, looking for unmarried couples, women in close-fitting clothes or not wearing an Islamic headscarf, and anyone drinking alcohol or gambling.
But the energy with which the 1,500-strong Wilayatul Hisbah – or Wi-Ha, as they are known – are carrying out their job has alarmed some Acehnese, as well as human rights groups, politicians, and businessmen.
Islamic law makes inroads
The province, on the western tip of Sumatra island, home to about 4 million people, won the right to implement Islamic law in 2001, after being granted semi-autonomy as part of efforts to end a decades-long separatist war. Sharia has been enforced with increasing vigor since the 2004 Asian tsunami, which many people interpreted as a divine warning, and last September the provincial parliament approved a new penalty for adulterers: stoning to death.
Aceh is not alone. Across Indonesia, dozens of local governments – given wide scope to enact their own laws under a decentralized system – have adopted Islamic regulations on dress and behavior. In parts of Central Java and South Sulawesi provinces, female civil servants are now obliged to wear headscarves or risk losing their jobs.
While the trend threatens to undermine Indonesia’s reputation for having a relaxed approach to Islam, it does not appear to have wide support. At national elections last year, the share of the vote won by Islamic parties plummeted.
In Aceh, many people say they abhor the stoning penalty – yet to be signed into law – although few will criticize it publicly for fear of being branded bad Muslims. But enforcers of a stricter approach to Islam appear to be gathering momentum. Public canings have been carried out, and earlier this month women were banned from wearing tight trousers in one district of Aceh.
In his dilapidated office in Banda Aceh, Iskandar applauds the crackdown. “In our religion, it’s forbidden to wear tight clothes, because they can show the body shape and arouse men’s desire,” he says. “It’s all about protecting women and increasing respect for them.”
Busting up tête-à-têtes
On a recent afternoon, 12 of Iskandar’s officers – six men and six women, their olive uniforms crowned by baseball caps and scarves, respectively – headed out to Banda Aceh’s harbor area, where young people often congregate.
Taking a softly-softly approach said to be typical of Wi-Ha's tactics, they advanced on a couple sitting in the shade. One officer inquired: “Are you married?” Shame-faced, the boy and girl shook their heads. The officers examined their identity papers, then ordered them to leave. They rode off on their motorbike, flush with embarrassment.
Kuzri, the patrol leader, said he had given them a stiff warning. “It’s preventative action, to make sure nothing else happens,” he said. “We told them that to be together in a romantic way, if not married, can lead to bigger things and on to adultery.” (Adultery, in Aceh, means any sex outside marriage.)
A little further on, a girl and boy took off as soon as the squad arrived. “Actually we’re brother and sister, but we were leaving anyway,” said the boy. Another couple, fishing off some rocks, said they were married. Kuzri believed them.
“You can tell,” he said. “First the location: married people don’t need to find a secluded place. Unmarried couples will try to find a place out of sight. Also, they sit very close. People who are married don’t do that."
Enforcement raises concern
While the officers only handed out warnings that afternoon, the force made dozens of arrests last year, mainly for adultery and drinking alcohol. Nevertheless, many Acehnese – particularly young people – appear to regard them mainly as an irritation. “We leave when they arrive, then we come back when they’ve gone,” says one man. “They’re annoying.”
Others dispute whether the Wi-Ha are really role models themselves – a question highlighted this week when three male officers were accused of gang-raping a female detainee in a police cell.
Critics say the way Islamic law is being enforced discriminates against women and poor people (since rich couples can go to a hotel), intrudes into private lives and encourages vigilantism. Acehnese businessmen fear it will harm attempts to attract investment to the province, which is rebuilding its economy following the tsunami.
In Aceh’s rural villages, which are socially conservative, some approve of the stricter codes of behavior. But they also have reservations. Lindawati, a seamstress, says: “Women are dressing more modestly now, which is good. But as for the stoning regulation, I don’t know how I would feel if one of my family had to suffer that kind of punishment.”
Craig Thorburn, an Indonesia expert based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, believes a radical Islamist minority is currently punching above its weight class. “There is a creeping Saudization taking place all over Indonesia, but it doesn’t have wide support, and I believe it’s a passing phase,” he says.