Field Notes article

Faith, Ethnicity, and Illiberal Citizenship: Authority, Identity, and Religious “Others” in Aceh’s Border Areas

Although Indonesia is not an Islamic state, it uniquely granted the province of Aceh permission to officially implement sharia law in 2001. This was an effort to win over the Aceh people, who are known to be deeply religious Muslims, against the Aceh Liberation Movement (which had no sharia agenda). Since then sharia has become the “master signifier” which defines all other aspects of life in the region. All other legal sources—customary laws, national laws, and international conventions—are interpreted according to, and should not contradict, sharia. The Quran and prophetic traditions are the major sources of legal authority and take precedence over the state constitution and national laws in all local qanuns (bylaws). The thing is, although Muslims are a majority (98.19% according to the 2010 census), non-Muslims live in Aceh too, albeit a small minority. They are citizens, just like their Muslim counterparts, and should technically have equal rights.

How, then, do local Islamic establishment politics and illiberal citizenship affect interreligious relations, sources of authority, and how individuals define their identity, especially in Aceh’s ethnically and religiously mixed border areas?


Religions, Ethnicity and “Host-Guest Citizenship”  

Map of Aceh Province in tan, with North Sumatra Province in pale yellow.

We entered Aceh in 2016 from the east border areas adjacent to North Sumatra— the Regencies of South East Aceh, Singkil, and Tamiang, and the municipalities of Subulussalam and Langsa—with liberal citizenship in mind, and encountered many questions regarding interreligious relations. Through observations, interviews, informal conversations, and focused group discussions, we found that Aceh implements a “host-guest citizenship”, in which Aceh is seen as the “land of sharia” (nanggroe syariat) and therefore the land  of Islam with Muslims as “hosts”. Meanwhile, non-Muslims are considered “guests”. Such illiberal citizenship has been legalized by the central government through Law No. 18/2001 and Law No. 11/2006. The former grants Aceh the right to implement sharia law and the latter obligates the governor, mayors, and regents to ensure sharia is implemented in their respective territories. To our surprise, this is not only the way the Acehnese define themselves against “others,” but also, to some extent, the way non-Muslims perceive themselves in Aceh. Some Christian and Buddhist leaders told us, “as guests we have to respect the traditions of the host.”

The Aceh-North Sumatra border is interesting in terms of religious identity and ethnicity. The neighboring province, North Sumatra, is home to a significant number of Christians (31% Protestants and Catholics), although Muslims are still the majority (66.09%). Migration of Batak Christians and others from North Sumatra to the border areas of Aceh is common practice, usually for work in palm oil plantation factories. Due to this migration, the number of Batak Christians living in Aceh’s border areas has been increasing. As a result, unlike most other parts of Aceh, the east border areas are more religiously and ethnically pluralistic. Although Muslims are still the majority, the Acehnese ethnic group are mostly a minority. Here live ethnic groups that are identified as Muslim, such as the Acehnese, Alas, Tamiang Malay, Boang, and Minangkabau; those identified as Christian, such as the Toba Batak and Karo Batak; and those associated with multiple faiths, such as Pakpak (Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, and Pambi [a local religion]), and Javanese (Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam).

These border areas also have the highest number of churches in Aceh. In Southeast Aceh there are 124 churches operating (only 38 are officially recognized by the government); in Singkil 24 churches (of which four are official); in Subulussalam four churches (only one church is legally recognized); in Tamiang there was one church, but it was closed by the government, and three Buddhist temples (vihara); in Langsa one church and one Buddhist temple shared with Hindus. Most of the churches belong to Batak and Pakpak people.

Since the implementation of sharia in 2001, the identity marker that indicates a group is the “host”, or “insider”, has become religious (Islamic) rather than ethnic. The Muslim ethnic groups hold dual “hosthood”, that is, they are ethnically and religiously hosts, such as Acehnese in Langsa; Alas is Southeast Aceh; and Tamiang Malay in Tamiang. Meanwhile in multi-religious ethnic groups, Muslim and non-Muslims compete with each other internally, and externally the Muslim members align with Muslims from other ethnicities to form a pan-Islamic “hosthood”. Multi-religious Pakpak and Muslim Boang have shared “hosthood” in Subulussalam and Singkil for a long time, but since 2001 the Boang and Muslim Pakpak have allied with other Muslims such as the Acehnese, Minangkabau, and Muslim Javanese, claiming the “hosthood” of Subulussalam and Singkil.


Protecting Muslim Faith, Establishing Authority and Identity

Aceh’s Muslims and the Aceh provincial government have at times viewed the heterogeneous and pluralistic nature of the border areas as a “threat” to the Muslim faith and Aceh’s identity as the “land of sharia”. The growing number of churches and rumors of “Christianization” of the border areas frequently generate concern for local authority as well as Muslims. Responding to such a “threat”, the Aceh government issued Gubernatorial Decree on Building Places of Worship in 2007. At the national level, the Joint Decree between the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Minister of Home Affairs in 2006 requires a place of worship obtain the support of 90 congregation members and 60 neighbors, complete with copies of their ID cards. But locally, the Aceh government’s 2007 Gubernatorial Decree makes the requirement even stricter. A place of worship must be supported by 150 congregation members and 120 neighbors. This has made it almost impossible for minority religions in Aceh to build their places of worship.

Islamic Center in Aceh Tamiang Regency.

In addition, the provincial Sharia Office, which operates within the gubernatorial office, established a “frontier preachers” (da’i perbatasan) program which has been operating since 2002. About 150 to 170 preachers were sent to border areas to teach Islam to Muslims. To bolster the program, the government also established “frontier Islamic boarding schools” (dayah perbatasan) and Islamic centers. The main aim of these endeavors is to protect the Islamic identity of the border areas, and prevent Muslims from being targeted by Christian missions.

The above policies cannot be separated from three government institutions: the Sharia Office, Council of Ulama Deliberation (Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama/MPU), and Aceh Religious Treasury Council (Baitul Mal Aceh/BMA). They exist at the provincial, municipal, and regency levels. While the Sharia Office drafts sharia derived legislation and manages sharia related policies, the MPU gives religious opinions (fatwas) and advice to the government concerning policies and regulations, as well as giving or not giving permission for public events. In this respect, many non-Muslim religious and social events cannot be conducted because they fail to receive the MPU’s permission. The BMA collects Islamic charity (zakat, infaq, sadaqah) and manages them for poverty alleviation and for supporting programs of sharia implementation. No similar institutions exist for non-Muslim citizens.

The only institution shared by Muslims and non-Muslims is a state-supported Forum for Harmonious Relations among Interreligious Communities (FKUB). It is in this forum that interreligious issues and social problems are discussed. It is also in charge of giving letters of recommendation for building places of worship. However, in most cases Muslim biases dominate the forum because, in most regions, the number of Muslim representatives in the forum is double or even triple that of other religions. Committee members are selected proportionately from the local community and Muslims tend to be the overwhelming majority. Non-Muslims have no choice because it is the only government-supported interreligious forum. So far, there are no civil society NGOs working specifically on interreligious issues, although there are individuals striving for religious freedom. On the contrary, there are Islamist movements—Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Islamic Ummah Forum (FUI), and Youth for the Care of Islam (PPI)—which have successfully organized people against any increase of churches in Singkil, burned a church, and pressured the government to close others.

The host-guest model of illiberal citizenship is also the framework through which the Aceh government and Muslims perceive tolerance of non-Muslim citizens, which can be called “asymmetric tolerance”. As host, the argument goes, they have given their non-Muslims “guests” the right to perform their beliefs and religion, but within the bounds set by the host. In return, the guests should respect the tradition, beliefs, and regulations of the host. Such favoring of a particular religion, seen through the perspective of liberal citizenship, is nothing but legal, political, and social exclusion. As such, the demand for equal citizenship has been emerging among academics, intelligentsia, NGO activists, and those who struggle for religious freedom in Aceh, although their voices have so far not affected the mainstream adherence to illiberal citizenship.


Photo Credit: Moch Nur Ichwan. Featured image: Youth Christmas in Tamiang (2016). The Christmas ceremony was planned to be held in an open space, but moved to a parishioner’s home because of the rain. The congregation could not use their church because they failed to receive the government’s permission.



Ichwan, Moch Nur. “The Politics of Shari‘atisation: Central Governmental and Regional Discourses of Shari‘a Implementation in Aceh,” Michael Feener and Mark Cammack (eds.), Islamic Law in Contemporary Indonesia, Harvard: Islamic Legal Studies Program, 2007, 193-215.

Feener, R. Michael. Shari`a and Social Engineering: The Implementation of Islamic Law in Contemporary Aceh, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kloos, David, R. Michael Feener, and Annemarie Samuels (eds.). Islam and the Limits of the State: Reconfigurations of Practices, Community and Authority in Contemporary Aceh, Leiden etc.: Brill, 2015.

Salim, Arskal. Contemporary Islamic Law in Indonesia: Shari`a and Legal Pluralism, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2015.

Moch Nur Ichwan
Dr. Moch Nur Ichwan holds PhD degree in Religious Studies and Islamic Politics from Tilburg University (2006) and is currently coordinator of doctorate program at the Graduate School of the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. His most recent publication is “Neo-Sufism, Shari‘atism, and Ulama Politics: Abuya Shaykh Amran Waly and Tauhid-Tasawuf Movement in Post-Conflict Aceh,” in C. van Dijk and N. Kaptein (Eds.), Islam, Politics and Change: The Indonesian Experience after the Fall of Suharto, Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2016.