Field Notes article

Living Under Islamic Authority: Identity and Community Among Non-Muslims in Aceh

Many know Aceh, Indonesia, as a predominantly Muslim area with a very strong Islamic identity. It is a province of the western-most part of Indonesian archipelago, at the northern tip of Sumatra island. As early as the twelfth century, Aceh was the first locale in this region to witness the establishment of a Muslim sultanate, after which Islam spread to much of the rest of Indonesia. According to the 2010 census, while around 88% of the total Indonesian population is Muslim, almost 99% of the population of Aceh is Muslim. The remaining one percent non-Muslim residents (around 55 thousand) living in Aceh are Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, and Confucians. This non-Muslim minority largely lives in towns or districts along the provincial border with North Sumatra, such as Singkil, Subulussalam, Kutacane, and Tamiang. Another concentration of the non-Muslim population is found in population centers such as Lhokseumawe, Langsa, and the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

Researchers Arskal Salim and Moch Nur Ichwan interview a religious leader in Kutacane.

Of those cities or districts where non-Muslims live in Aceh, both Kutacane and Singkil have the largest non-Muslim population. For this reason, we visited these sites first for this Contending Modernities research project. Along with Moch Nur Ichwan (my co-investigator) and Marzi Afriko (a local research assistant), we arrived at these bordering districts in March 2016. We started our trip not from Banda Aceh, but from Medan, the capital of the North Sumatra province. We did so not only because of Medan’s relative proximity, but also to see and feel how much both districts are culturally and demographically affected by North Sumatra, which is quite different from Aceh. While Aceh is primarily a Muslim province, North Sumatra is a province with a large Protestant population.

Given the long presence of non-Muslims in Aceh and the fact that sharia Islamic rules are now officially enforced in Aceh since the beginning of the twenty first century, we are interested in finding answers to the following questions: 1) How does the local implementation of sharia in Aceh affect relationships between people of different ethnic and religious affiliations? 2) How do ethnic and religious minority groups perceive and respond to the enforcement of sharia? Are they optimistic or pessimistic about their future in the province? And 3) How can we explain the process of identity and community making for non-Muslims in Aceh given they now live under Islamic authority?

Like in other areas of Indonesia, the burning issues that bring interreligious relations sharply to the fore are religious conversion and the establishment of places of worship for religious minorities. As early as 1968, a church was burned in Meulaboh, in West Aceh, and from then on the presence of a new church in any part of Aceh has been contentious. Muslims in Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia view churches with suspicion as hubs for spreading the influence of Christianity. Some members of the Muslim majority fear that churches are platforms for proselytization aimed at gradually converting Muslims.

Our recent site visit to Kutacane and Singkil generated more questions. Both districts have a strong presence of Protestants both in terms of population and the public presence of churches and Christian symbols. However, while in Kutacane people with different religious backgrounds are bound by a variety of social relations including long traditions of interreligious marriage, the people who live in Singkil tend to be socially segregated. What are factors that foster religioethnic engagement in Kutacane and social barriers Singkil? How do non-Muslims in both districts identify themselves and build their own community? To what extent are they able to address the social constraints of living under Aceh’s Islamic sharia rules—like dietary restrictions and bans on alcohol?

Our tentative findings reveal an interesting hypothesis. It seems that people who live in Singkil are uncertain about how to present their social identity: in particular, their insider or outsider status. The question of whether or not Singkil is within the Acehnese ethnic group’s zone of influence, or how much it has been Acehnized, remains unresolved. The Acehnese are the majority ethnic group who live on the northern tip of Sumatra. Almost all of the Acehnese are Muslims, and to be Acehnese is to be associated with Islam. As Singkil is located on the provincial border, near populations of non-Muslims in North Sumatra, the presence as well as the influence of the Acehnese in this region has generated strong ethno-religious rivalries. Unlike other places in Aceh, territorial and ethno-religious “insider” identities do not cleanly overlap: to be from Singkil does not simultaneously reference both ethnic and religious categories. In fact, the question of who is an insider remains contested.

The population of Singkil is predominantly composed of members of the Batak Pakpak group. Although some of them are Muslim, unlike the Acehnese, their identity as Batak Pakpak is independent of their Muslim identity. In fact, many Batak Pakpak are non-Muslim. Before Indonesia’s independence in 1945, these non-Muslim Batak Pakpak were a majority population across the region. The provincial division after the independence made non-Muslim Batak Pakpak a majority population in North Sumatra province, while across the border in Singkil, in the Aceh province, the majority is Muslim Batak Pakpak. For this historical reason, non-Muslim Batak Pakpak who currently live in Aceh Singkil refuse to be identified as migrant outsiders. In summary, to be from Singkil implies identity elements that do not easily coexist with those of the Acehnese. So when it comes to the current term for the regency and town, ‘Aceh Singkil’, one would think that two different things are forcefully blended. And, this blend is yet incomplete.

In contrast, Kutacane is widely known as the home of the Alas, the predominant ethnic group which has lived in this area for centuries. The Alas are distinct from the Acehnese. However, like the Acehnese, most Alas people are Muslim. And being Muslim, the Alas easily integrated into the prevailing political culture in the province including the implementation of sharia. In the meantime, non-Muslims living in Kutacane are mostly from the Batak Karo sub-ethnic group. They are considered outsiders who migrated from North Sumatra. Thus, compared to Non-Muslim Batak Pakpak in Singkil who contend with Muslim local residents (some of whom are also Batak Pakpak) for “insider” status, non-Muslim Batak Karo in Kutacane seem to have accepted their outsider status and are less motivated to compete politically with the local Alas residents. The non-Muslim Batak Karo are recognized and accepted in the region as a distinct entity, and therefore have more reasons to remain a separate community. As such, despite inter-ethnic social relationships with Muslim Alas, the Batak Karo also have opportunities to express their particular religious identity even under Islamic sharia authority.


Photo Credit: Arskal Salim. A woman drives by the Religious Court of Singkil, which hands down sharia law for the regency.

Arskal Salim
ARSKAL SALIM is currently Professor of Politics of Islamic Law at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta, Indonesia. He obtained a PhD in Law from Melbourne Law School, Australia, in 2006. His PhD dissertation was published by Hawaii University Press in 2008 with the title: Challenging the Secular State: The Islamization of Laws in Modern Indonesia. Having completed his PhD, he went to Germany for a postdoctoral research fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology from 2006 to 2009. His postdoctoral project then was published in 2015 by Edinburgh University Press with the title: Contemporary Islamic Law in Indonesia: Sharia and Legal Pluralism.