Aceh: The rise of Islamic conservatism in Aceh

The Jakarta Post
The fundamental problem facing Muslims and others seeking to understand Islam is not there are too many Islams. There is only one Islam, but there are a thousand possible interpretations of the texts and precepts.
All lay claim to be the indisputable truth, all claim that no version but their own can be true. An unfortunate omission in current critiques of Islam is that they usually ignore the fact that competing interpretations of the faith have caused more conflicts within Islam than outside of Islam.
Setting aside finer nuances, the most important division for anybody interested in challenging intolerance and anti-democratic beliefs is the divide between moderate and conservative adherents of the faith. In contrast to the latter, moderates advocate for a civil Islam based on tolerance, for an Islam compatible with democratic ideas and modern life.

This division has given rise to an often hidden war between moderates and conservatives throughout the Muslim world. Sadly, this is increasingly the case in the devout province of Aceh. Healthy competition between conservativism and moderate interpretations is on the wane as Islamic conservativism gains ground. Moderates, conversely, are on the defensive, scared to speak out, and increasingly unable to get their voices heard.

If we take as an example a new qanun (local regulation issued by the Syar'iah authorities) implemented as of this month, the new prohibition legislates that Muslim Acehnese women must wear headscarves and may not wear tight clothes. The foundations of this ruling lie in extremely conservative interpretations of Islam. This is not the moderate Islam that has existed in Aceh for centuries. The majority of Acehnese have long believed? and practiced? a faith that is based on persuasion rather than top-down enforcement of a restrictive reading of the faith.

Historically, Acehnese Islam was a tool for combating injustice and oppression. If you look at pictures of Aceh's heroine Cut Nyak Dhien, you see a women that took up arms against colonial oppression in defence of Acehnese cultural and religious identity, yet did not wear jilbab. Historically, Islam in Aceh was about living by core values, not the superficial appearance of principle.

In contrast to their self-proclaimed agenda of defending Islam, in reality today's conservatives are actually diminishing Islam, reducing it to small things that are inadequate or irrelevant in the face of the challenges of modern life or development. Ask the conservatives questions that reach beyond their favourite topics of gambling, alcohol and headscarves, for example about how their type of interpretation religion can promote or support the reconstruction of Aceh, or Aceh's political and economic development and they are unable to answer.

So how, given this lack of substance, have conservative interpretations of Islam come to dominate the public discourse in Aceh, to the extent that conservative readings are being adopted in law and imposed on the majority? moderate? of Acehnese? Why are the conservatives taking centre stage and representing themselves as mainstream Acehnese?

The rise of the conservatives can be attributed to multiple factors. One important element is that rising conservativism reflects national trends around religious and political discourses in Indonesia. This nation-wide trend is largely attributable to the dominant position given to Middle Eastern readings of Islam. What can be seen to be happening in Aceh, as well as other places in Indonesia, is not actually 'Islamization' as it is often called, but actually 'Arabization'. If we give them the space, Aceh's unique experience of Islam is being subsumed by conservative elements of the Arab world. This conservative view has now even being challenged by Muslim moderates in Middle East.

The dominance of this approach has, in large part, been driven by the influx of outsiders entering Aceh with an agenda to promote Arabic interpretations of Islam. This agenda has been strengthened by local religious conservatives with an eye to the opportunity to gain political power for themselves and their allies. Central government's tacit encouragement of these groups has also allowed them to flourish, thereby distracting attention from more important social, development and justice issues.

In Aceh the Islamic conservatives are setting restrictive limitations in all areas of discussion. They are ultimately closing the space for public debate about more important issues and damaging our ability and prospects for ijtihad (critical thinking mandated for Muslims in the Qu'ran) about our own development and future.

It is important to help moderate Muslim voices in Aceh. Support must come from Indonesia's other Muslim communities and other non Acehnese, given that the current conservativism in Aceh is an import, not simply a provincial issue. It is a problem for all of us, whether in Aceh, or elsewhere in Indonesia. If conservative Islamic groups go unchallenged in Aceh, not only will this promote oppression of the Acehnese, particularly woman, but it will also prevent development within a cultural and historical framework that is appropriate to Acehnese Islam. Other Muslims in Indonesia should be aware that this imported, conservative view not only insults the Acehnese people, but all our histories and Islam itself.

The writer is an Acehnese human right advocate.
Originally published in The Jakarta Post on 26 January 2006