In Aceh Indonesia, Islamic Police Take to the Streets

Article excerpt

Islamic police in Aceh, Indonesia, patrol daily for women wearing tight clothes and unmarried couples sitting too close.

"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.

Aceh - known as the "Veranda of Mecca" because Islam entered Indonesia there centuries ago - has long been the most devout spot in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

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 tete-a-tetes

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. …