Shari’a and Civil Society: Lessons from Indonesia

Speaking before an enraptured audience at the University of Indonesia in early November, U.S. President Barack Obama reminisced about the sights and sounds of his childhood in Jakarta. Obama fondly remembered the call to prayers that rang out five times a day. Islam in Indonesia, he said, was a religion of peace, diversity and tolerance:

“While my stepfather, like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim, he firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect. In this way, he reflected the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.”

Not everyone shares Obama’s optimism about Islam in Indonesia. Some fearful Western commentators, reacting to the 2002 bomb blast in Bali and shari’a-inspired ordinances in dozens of local districts, fretted about the perceived rise of radical Islam and the ominous threat that Indonesia could become an Islamic state. A 2006 New York Times article about shari’a law in the province of Aceh included a photograph of a masked shari’a officer caning a man for drinking alcohol. Like other alarmist accounts in Western media, this low-angle image of gruesome public punishment conjures fears of a supposedly violent Islam. Moreover, it provides little insight into the history, political context or vibrant public debate about shari’a law in Indonesia.

Shari’a law in contemporary Aceh was only made possible through the political shifts of the last decade. During Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order regime (1967-1998), the former Indonesian president brutally suppressed and subsequently co-opted political Islam. He often imprisoned Muslim leaders deemed a threat to the state and required Islamic organizations to declare allegiance to the state ideology of Pancasila. National histories were re-written to cast Islamist groups such as Darul Islam as zealots and traitors. In the aftermath of Soeharto’s downfall and the public admission of mass atrocities committed under his rule, Islam acquired a new moral legitimacy vis-à-vis the state. Many Indonesians looked to Islam to heal the country’s political, economic and moral problems. Their mantra was, “Islam adalah solusi” (“Islam is the solution”). Within a couple of years, the war-torn province of Aceh was granted “special autonomy” status and the authority to enforce shari’a law. Dozens of local districts elsewhere in the archipelago also passed shari’a-inspired ordinances.

The formal introduction of shari’a law in Aceh in 1999 has a complex genealogy with roots in Aceh’s unique religious and political history. Its proponents claim that shari’a law in contemporary Aceh harks back to a golden age of Islamic law before Dutch colonial rule. Yet, the implementation of shari’a law in Aceh reflects a decidedly contemporary political climate. Islamic courts before Dutch rule did indeed preside over various family, inheritance and criminal cases. However, political cleavages that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s pitted Acehnese aristocrats who sided with the newfound Republic of Indonesia against Islamic scholars intent on an Islamic state. In the decades that followed, it was the exploitation of Aceh’s resources without adequate return in infrastructure, health care and education – not a desire for shari’a law – that fomented Acehnese nationalism and the secessionist sentiments of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

In 1999, Soeharto’s successor B.J. Habibie proposed shari’a law as an olive branch that might bring an end to decades of conflict in Aceh, in part, by appealing to the common assumption that the Acehnese wanted shari’a law. However, the Acehnese response was mixed. Some people genuinely hoped that shari’a law would safeguard Acehnese from the moral perils of alcohol, pornography and other vices. Other people were dubious about the political motives behind giving Aceh special autonomy status, and even referred to shari’a as an “unwanted gift.”

Public ambivalence toward shari’a increased as the difficulties of defining and enforcing shari’a became apparent. For example, the first three offenses defined under shari’a law in Aceh were alcohol consumption, gambling and illicit relations (khalwat). Whereas 40 lashes for alcohol consumption was widely accepted in Sunni Islamic law, exactly how such punishment should be rendered was not as clear. Practical considerations, such as whether to use a rope for the lashes, turned into issues for moral debate.

Acehnese shari’a officers maintained that the intent was not to inflict pain, but to publicly shame the person. After surveying shari’a implementation in other countries, Acehnese officials decided that the thicker ropes used in Malaysia would be too brutal. They even mandated that the caning should not draw blood and that a doctor must be present. As another example of shari’a in local context, consider the 2002 law requiring men and women to wear “Islamic dress.” What exactly is Islamic dress? The widespread wearing of headscarves – now mandated by shari’a law – was actually a relatively new phenomenon in Aceh. Thus the implementation of shari’a law was often more about defining shari’a in new social contexts than enforcing timeless moral codes. Neither the Qur’an nor hadith explicitly clarify the punishment for gambling or illicit relations between unmarried people. Nor do they designate who should monitor such activities. In Aceh, the shari’a bureaucracy instituted a virtue and vice patrol (wilayatul hisbah) in 2002 that carried out sweeping operations and established random checkpoints to specifically target women not wearing headscarves or whose clothes were deemed too provocative. They shaved the heads of some women and shamed others by parading them around in public. Some Acehnese complained that the virtue and vice brigade was too enamored with its newfound authority and, thus, were not sincere (ikhlas) in their efforts.

Shari’a officers also encouraged the public to take matters into their own hands. Neighborhood watch groups posted signs warning against illicit relations and conducted latenight sting operations to catch unmarried couples in the act. A 2006 International Crisis Group report observed that shari’a enforcement in Aceh had spiraled into “moral vigilantism.” Public narratives about shari’a enforcement – in newspapers, television shows and roadside billboards – promoted vigilantism by glorifying neighborhood watch groups as moral protagonists and public heroes. In the billboard image above, adolescents are depicted with devil horns whereas shari’a-enforcers are portrayed as pious Muslims, their pointing fingers signaling righteous indignation. The text references a 2003 law: “It is forbidden for two or more persons of the opposite sex who are not related or married to be in seclusion or out in public together. Those who do are headed toward committing adultery.”

Unfortunately, some Western activists and NGOs tend to simply invert such moral narratives, casting shari’a supporters as the villains. The vast majority of pious Muslims who support shari’a-inspired ordinances do not join neighborhood watch groups or publicly shame supposedly promiscuous young women. Many Indonesians appeal to Islamic ethics of public culture by suggesting – and not disingenuously so – that their support for shari’a reflects their strong belief to carry out Allah’s injunction to enjoin virtue and forbid vice in their communities. Meanwhile, other Indonesians wonder whether corruptorthieves who serve in parliament will ever receive their punishment according to shari’a.

What distinguishes Indonesia from countries such as Saudi Arabia, however, is that public discourse and debate about shari’a is played out in a vibrant civil society. At one of many academic conferences about shari’a law, prominent Muslim feminist Siti Musdah Mulia lamented that shari’a enforcement most often focused on controlling female sexuality instead of targeting more pressing issues such as poverty and political corruption. In what elicited both jeers and applause, Mulia pleaded with the audience of Islamic scholars from around the world: “Surely issues such as health and education for the underprivileged would be a more useful place to start. Isn’t that more Islamic?” After a distinguished professor from Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University scolded Mulia, an activist came to her defense: “Islam here is not like it is in your country. Islam here is diverse.” As Mulia’s argument makes clear, the debate about shari’a in Indonesia is also a global discussion about what Islam is – and what Islam should be.

At first glance, shari’a in Indonesia presents a paradox. While public expressions of piety are increasingly valued in Indonesia, the popularity of local shari’a ordinances in other Indonesia provinces actually peaked around 2003 and has since declined. Also, in these provinces, it was most often secularnationalists – not the Islamist political parties – who proposed local shari’a initiatives in their effort to garner religio-political capital. Further still, political parties with an explicitly Islamist agenda fared poorly during national elections in 2004 and 2009. Thus, in Indonesia, the words of the late scholar Nurcholish Madjid still ring true: “Islam, yes, Islamic political parties, no.” The vast majority of Indonesians still prefer democracy – but with shari’a as its moral compass.

James B. Hoesterey is a Professor at Lake Forest College. He is also the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of Islamic Studies. He earned his PhD from the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin.


Jane Perlez, “Indonesian Province Embraces Islamic Law,” New York Times, August 1, 2006.

Aspinall, Edward, Islam and Nation: Separatist Rebellion in Aceh, Indonesia, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

Bowen, John, Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia (Cambridge, 2003), 232

International Crisis Group, “Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh” (2006) See also, Human Rights Watch, “Policing Morality: Abuses in the Application of Shar’ia in Aceh, Indonesia” (2010).

Sarah J. Newman, “Patrolling Sexuality: The Authorities and the Media Promote Vigilantism in Aceh,” Inside Indonesia 96 (2009), accessed December 5, 2010,

Jemma Parsons, “Modelling syariah in Aceh,” Inside Indonesia 91 (2008), accessed December 5, 2010, http://www.

Robin Bush, “Regional Sharia Regulations in Indonesia: Anomaly or Symptom?” in Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, eds. Greg Fealy and Sally White (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008).

For a detailed account of this argument, see Robert W. Hefner, ed., (forthcoming), “Indonesia: Shari’a Politics and Democratic Transition,” in Shari’a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern Muslim World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 283-307.

In the aftermath of Soeharto’s downfall and the public admission of mass atrocities committed under his rule, Islam acquired a new moral legitimacy vis-à-vis the state. Many Indonesians looked to Islam to heal the country’s political, economic and moral problems.

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