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Indonesia: Why Aceh's cities rank low in tolerance

Arti Ekawati | Hidayatullah in Aceh, Indonesia
February 20, 2024

Aceh is a staunchly conservative province of Indonesia and the only region in the world's most populous Muslim country that implements the Islamic law, Shariah.

Muslims attend a mass prayer session at a mosque in Aceh
Over 98% of Aceh's around 5.4 million residents are MuslimsImage: Irwansyah Putra/Antara Foto/REUTERS

Cities in Indonesia's Aceh province rank among the most intolerant in the country, the SETARA Institute, a Jakarta-based think tank, said in its recently published annual report, which ranks 94 Indonesian cities from "most tolerant" to "least tolerant."

The report, called the Tolerant City Index 2023, assesses the cities based on variables such as local laws, social regulations, government actions and socioreligious demographics.

The index, first published in 2015, records whether there have been any incidents of religious freedom violations in the past year, and if local authorities have made adequate efforts to maintain religious harmony and diversity as well, as social inclusion.

This year, three cities in Aceh — Lhokseumawe, Sabang and the provincial capital Banda Aceh — are ranked among the most intolerant places in the Southeast Asian nation. 

Halili Hasan, executive director of SETARA, blamed the lack of government commitment to fostering tolerance as one of the main reasons behind the cities' poor ranking.

"Such conditions have caused discrimination against minority groups, such as religious, gender and racial minorities. So, it becomes intolerance and a deep-rooted problem," he told DW.

Shariah defines life in Aceh

This isn't the first time that SETARA Institute has placed Aceh near the bottom when measuring tolerance. 

Aceh, which has around 5.4 million residents, is a staunchly conservative province and the only region in the world's most populous Muslim country that implements Islamic law, or Shariah.

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The enforcement of Shariah in the province was part of the central government's efforts to put an end to an insurgency and a drive for independence in the region.

But since its introduction in 2006, a starkly conservative regime has taken hold across Aceh.

Under Aceh's Islamic criminal code, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are forbidden, and violations could result in imprisonment, fines and public floggings.

The law also bars activities such as gambling and alcohol consumption, and makes headscarves obligatory for women. 

The provincial government last year banned unrelated men and women from being together in public places and even in vehicles, as part of tightened rules to keep the opposite sexes apart.

The Shariah police, which operates separately from the regular police forces, monitors whether such rules are being followed.

The SETARA report said governmental and social regulations in the province favor Muslims and discriminate against religious minorities.

It pointed to increasingly strict rules on religious attire in schools and government offices, growing obligations to perform religious services and obstacles to conducting economic activities during Ramadan. "These conditions actually do not support the formation of an ecosystem of tolerance," the report noted.

What do locals say about the report's findings?

Sabang, a city located on the Weh Island, at the far western tip of the country, is about a 30-minute ferry ride away from Aceh's capital Banda Aceh.

The area's economy relies on agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

It attracts tourists from many countries, including Malaysia, Australia and Germany, who visit the region to enjoy its wildlife, go diving or snorkeling, and experience its cuisine.

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Ichsan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, works for a local tour and travel company. He said the tourism sector in Sabang is slowly recovering after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ichsan rejects the finding that Sabang is among the most intolerant places in Indonesia.

"Basically, we never restrict anyone who wants to visit and enjoy the nature here. However, we have local norms here in Sabang, same as there are such things in Lombok or Bali," he said, referring to other Indonesian islands.

Sofyan Adam, a community leader in the city, echoed this view.

"Our society has been heterogeneous since before Dutch colonization, and we are very tolerant here. This can be proven by the existence of places of worship of all religions," he said. 

"You can also find various customs and cultures here, so it is strange to say that we are intolerant."

As for Shariah, Adam said it only applies to Muslims living in Aceh and not to followers of other faiths.

Pastor Gerard, who leads one of the few christian churches in Sabang, shares a similar opinion.

"I was a bit worried when I was first assigned to Aceh. Yet, as I came and experienced the people and the area directly, I think people in here (Sabang) are very tolerant," he told DW, adding that there are times when Muslims and Christians in Sabang have invited each other to celebrate Easter and Ramadan.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru