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On patrol with Aceh's Sharia police

2 February 10 06:22 GMT

By Karishma Vaswani
BBC News, Banda Aceh

It is Saturday night, and the streets of Banda Aceh are packed. Cars and motorcycles jostle for space on the roads, while "Bentor" taxis - motorcycles attached to wheelbarrows - scout for passengers.

Like any big city in Indonesia, Banda Aceh comes to life at the weekends. It is hard to believe that this city was once a devastated wasteland, laid to ruin by the powerful tsunami that destroyed everything in its trail just five years ago.

But it is not just the brand new roads and fancy buildings that are different about this place now. There are also the Sharia police. They were set up in Aceh in 2003 but only started their operations in Banda Aceh after the tsunami.

I went to visit them before some of the officers were due out on their evening patrols.

There I met Iskandar, head of the religious taskforce in the Banda Aceh district, who was busy barking out orders to the rest of his team before they went.

"The duty of the Sharia police in Aceh is to keep the regulations of Islamic law, to make the Acehnese care about their religion," he told me as he showed me around their dingy offices.

Beach patrol

The Sharia police see themselves as the guardians of Islam in Aceh.

Decked out in military-style, olive-green uniforms and berets, they cruise the streets in their open-top vehicles, looking for anyone breaking Islamic law.

Their first stop is the beach. It is a popular destination for teenagers in Aceh at night.

A romantic ballad plays on the speakers, while young couples lounge on plastic chairs, in front of makeshift cafes.

Boys in their jeans and some girls in their jilbabs, eating corn on the cob and sipping Coca-Cola.

A picture of harmless, innocent adolescence.

But the party does not last long. The Sharia police are here - and they zero in on their first target. A young boy and girl, sitting too close to one another in the dark.

What happens next would be almost farcical if it was not so humiliating for those involved. The Sharia police surround the couple, demanding to see their identity cards.

The young girl, wearing a bright yellow jilbab, turns away, too embarrassed to speak.

The boy, clean shaven and handsome, tries to explain that they were doing nothing wrong - just hanging out and talking, but is cut short by one of the men in charge.

They are told to get out of the dark and leave the beachfront. It is late and they should not be out at night - especially since they are unmarried and not related to one another by blood.

"Under our laws, an unmarried man and woman who sit alone together in the dark are immoral," Zaki Almubarak tells me.

"To prevent them from committing adultery, we stop them."

Veranda of Islam

Religious law has penetrated all parts of Aceh's life - even making its presence felt at an ordinary high school basketball game.

Like anywhere else in the country, the youngsters cheer enthusiastically for their teams.

But here in Aceh there is a difference - the boys and girls sit on opposite sides of the court.

They are forced to sit apart by the Sharia police who are patrolling the auditorium looking for any violations of Islamic law.

Nindy, 18, has come to watch the game with her female friends, but, unlike the other girls, she stands out because she does not wear the traditional Muslim headscarf.

She refuses to comply with the Sharia police's rules.

Outside the auditorium, I ask her why she is willing to take this risk in deeply Muslim Aceh.

"I know that people here are pious and they really love their religion. I just never thought it was going to be this fundamentalist," she says, playing with the tassels on her shawl.

"Aceh's changed a lot. It doesn't mean I'm not a good Muslim if I don't wear this - my headscarf. It's my right to live the way I want to."

Aceh is one of the most deeply Muslim places in Indonesia. Often called the veranda of Islam, it is seen as the birth place of the Muslim religion in Indonesia.

But many here are concerned about how quickly their province is changing.

Now a new law has people worried. Only in place in Western Aceh, and effective from January of this year, the law bans women from wearing tight trousers.

Even in Banda Aceh though, at least eight hours away from where the ban applies, Novi has seen the ban affect her business.

She sells tight trousers for a living and sales have slumped by 50% since the ban was put in place.

She tells me she is a devout Muslim - and wears a headscarf - but does not agree that these decisions should be dictated by an external body.

"They can't impose that kind of ban," she tells me.

"What we wear doesn't reflect our morality. It's our right to wear what we want as long as we don't go against our religion."

Stoning laws

Lawmakers who support Sharia law say opinions were sought from Aceh's citizens before it was introduced - and for the most part, people here approved of the law.

Stoning for adulterers and banning tight trousers may sound harsh, but lawmakers say strict laws exist in other parts of the world too.

Burhanuddin is one of those who passed the law on stoning for adulterers in Aceh.

"Sharia law acts as a deterrent in Aceh. We need it," he says.

"China has a death penalty, so does America. They even detain people without trial there. Why do people only point the finger at Aceh?"

But for Nindy and her friends, the answer to that question is fairly obvious.

At the end of the day I meet up with them again, at the beach where just the night before the Sharia police were conducting their raids.

Hanging out at the beach, they are like teenagers anywhere else in the world - laughing, gossiping about boys.

Sharia law is not new to them or to the people of Aceh - it was brought in in 2002 - but it is now being enforced far more strictly than ever before.

People in Aceh are some of the most devoutly Muslim in Indonesia, but many here feel you can be both Muslim and modern as well.

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