We Asked An Expert Why Non-Muslims Would Choose To Be Punished Under Sharia Law

Sharia law, the divine code of Islam, is supposed to only be applied to Muslims. But this past Sunday, two Buddhist men were caned in Aceh for cockfighting.

Mar 13 2017, 2:31pm

On April 12th 2016, in front of hundreds of people, a 60 year-old woman was whipped 30 times for selling alcohol, an act that violated Aceh's sharia law.

Yesterday, Alem bin Suhadi and Amel bin Akim, two citizens of Chinese descent were given the same punishment. The wicker whip hit Alem's back nine times and Amel's seven for cockfighting.

In both cases, non-Muslim citizens chose to be punished under sharia laws. According to the Acehnese law, non-Muslim citizens who committed crimes in Aceh are free to choose punishment under sharia or national laws. The only instance when a convicted non-Muslim must be punished under sharia law is if the crime committed is not covered under the KUHP (National Criminal Law).

After the yesterday's caning there were mixed reactions. National Human Rights commissioner Otto Syamsudin Ishak told BBC Indonesia that the application of sharia law against non-Muslim citizens strays from traditional Islamic laws and teaching, "It shows that national laws do not apply there, so it's a shift in the the way Islamic laws are applied."

"The trend hasn't only happened in Aceh but in West Java, South Sulawesi, and Kalimantan," said Indonesian Institute of Sciences researcher Wasisto Jati, an expert on sharia law in Indonesia. "That's been a trend in Indonesia towards pushing for Islamic laws to be turned into national laws," he told VICE Indonesia.

VICE Indonesia speaks to Wasisto Jati about how sharia laws can be disproportionally applied and why there has been a spate of non-Mulsims receiving punishments normally reserved for Muslims.

VICE Indonesia: Two Buddhist citizens were recently whipped. How can sharia law apply to non-Muslim citizens?
Wasisto Jati: We need to understand that lately sharia laws are trying to stand on equal footing with national laws. What I know is that non-Muslim citizens should be processed with national laws, not sharia laws. It's not their religion and it would violate their human rights, equality with national laws didn't apply here. The implementation of sharia law began in Aceh around 2003, since then it's brought up conflicting opinions. 

In the past, the issues were more about alcohol, gambling, prostitution etc.  Slowly the laws started to apply to the administrative side of government. Which actually goes above and beyond national laws. That has a lot to do with regional autonomy [in Aceh].

What about the recent attempts at implementing sharia laws outside of Aceh?
Hardline Islamic groups have tried to approach regional governments and demand that Islamic laws be enforced. However, the problem there is the laws are too broad and unfocused. It's not very clear what their objective is, and who their targets are. Secondly, who will regulate sharia laws, and thirdly, if sharia laws are used to punish citizens, then what are the police for?

What about the sharia police?
What I can say right now is they try to detain couples who are seen together. This issue is also already being handled by the regular police.

Article 11/2006 says non-Muslim citizens can be processed under sharia as long as they chose so, or have committed crimes with Muslims. What can you tell me about that?
The position depends on the suspect. But if we look at it from a broad perspective, the fact that they're given options is intriguing. Since when are we allowed to bargain with laws? Especially after the crime has been committed.

When a non-Muslim chooses to be tried under sharia laws, some think the punishments are 'lighter' than national laws. Is that view valid?
In the context of sharia laws, punishments are given to shame people. For example, they are whipped in public, and the case ends when the punishment ends. The important thing is that people are ashamed. That's what encourages citizens to choose to be processed by sharia laws. People might think that national laws take much too long. While sharia laws may shame people, there's no guarantee of deterrence.

Can sharia laws be applied to non-Muslims in Aceh who commit crimes that are covered under sharia but are not under national laws ? Can they just walk away?
Considering the procedures, especially sharia laws, it's not black and white. There are no set pattern. I think it goes back to the principles of human rights. First, what's the function of sharia law in Aceh. Then, who are the targets of these laws? We haven't determined that yet. 

Meanwhile, in national laws, those things have been spelled out. If we interpret sharia laws strictly, they are much harsher [than national laws]. Sharia justifies cutting hands and beheading people, but that's only symbolic here, with certain "concessions" applied in Indonesia.

What do you mean by concessions?
Pure sharia laws cannot be enforced, for example you can't cut off hands, behead people, or stone them. Although those punishments are sharia, we can't implement them because of national laws against such things. [The concessions] are so that sharia laws can still be applied without breaking national laws.

Can you provide examples?
Just look at these recent criminal cases: selling alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. It's interesting that only in these circumstances they applied sharia law.

Do you think the enforcement of these laws hurts citizens of a particular gender and class?
Obviously! That's what we're trying to see. The principles of sharia laws are still too rigid. They are inflexible, gender-biased, authoritative, and substantively biased. It discriminates against women and minority groups, like a different school of thought in Islam.

So sharia laws are applied to certain types of crimes that specifically violate sharia?
Alcohol, prostitution, gambling. But, for some reason, it doesn't cover bigger things like corruption. It means those punishments only affect a particular class of citizen.

Will there be a change in the way sharia law is carried out in Aceh?
I think sharia has a broad scope, it's a large issue. It would have my support if corruption suspects were also processed by sharia laws. It would have a bigger impact, it's just too bad that hasn't been implemented yet.

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