Despite its reputation for devoutness, Aceh's identity is not based on Islam alone, but is made up of ethnic, political, economic and historical factors. The conflicts with the Dutch and the central government have been associated with calls for Shari'ah law, but Islam was only one of many strands of the struggle. Teungku Daud Beureueh, the leader of Aceh's ulama (the legal scholars and arbiters of Shari'ah law) and Military Governor during the struggle for Indonesian independence (when Aceh was the only area of the Dutch East Indies not re-occupied by the allies after the defeat of Japan), demanded special status for Aceh within Indonesia, including – but not restricted to – the right to apply Shari'ah. Yet his vision of Shari'ah was not one based on severe punishments. He led Darul Islam's (DI) struggle against the centralising tendencies of the Indonesian government in the 1950s due to disillusionment of the people of Aceh with the new republic's policies. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was, like the DI movement, more of an ethno-nationalist movement with economic and cultural underpinnings than an Islamist one.
After Suharto's fall some Jakarta-based political leaders believed that offering Aceh Shari'ah could undercut GAM's appeal, as well as restore public trust in the central government. But when President Wahid offered Shari'ah to strife-torn Aceh, many suspected a political trick and GAM leaders portrayed the move as part of a government effort to paint GAM as fundamentalists. Senior GAM representative Amni Marzuki said in an interview with Reuters in 2000, "the Indonesian government wants us to look like Afghanistan." Other leaders said they did not want the sort of Shari'ah being offered by Jakarta.
Law No. 44/1999 (on the implementation of Aceh's special status) called for implementation of Shari'ah for Muslims and gave the local government authority to set policies on religious life, custom, education and the ulama's role. Regulation No. 5/2000 (on the Implementation of Islamic Law) established that all aspects of Shari'ah would be applied. In 2001 the provincial government created a Shari'ah office (Dinas Syariat Islam). That same year, the Special Autonomy Law for Aceh (Law No.18/2001) allowed for the creation of Shari'ah courts with jurisdiction over not just the areas of family and property issues covered by existing religious courts but also criminal cases.
The introduction of Shari'ah in Aceh has been in the form of a narrowly conservative interpretation illustrated in the Qanun passed in 2002 which criminalised what is regarded as un-Islamic dress, providing a basis for punishing women who do not wear a headscarf. In 2003, a Qanun was passed criminalising gambling, the sale and consumption of liquor, and illicit relations between men and women (including being caught in close proximity, or khalwat ) specifying for the first time punishments such as caning in public.
It is not entirely clear how Shari'ah criminal laws can co-exist with secular laws or how to regulate the zealous enforcers of religious criminal laws. Most conspicuously, the increasingly unpopular enforcers of Shari'ah in Aceh, the wiliyatul hisbah , are, as an International Crisis Group report states, a "haphazardly recruited, poorly disciplined, poorly supervised force that distinguishes itself more by moral zeal than legal competence." They seem to lack a proper understanding of their role, often taking people to their office for 'advice' despite the fact that legally they have no police powers and cannot make arrests. There have been many notorious incidents of their zealotry, such as the one in August 2006 when they forced their way into a UN compound in Banda Aceh, peering into staff bedrooms (violating international conventions on diplomatic privilege and immunity), thus prompting the Acehnese authorities and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to apologise on behalf of the government. There have been other incidents of corruption and brutality.
The narrow, legalistic approach to Shari'ah in Aceh has caused much consternation to moderate and secular Muslims. They asserted that Shari'ah – especially regarding criminal law – was out of line with Indonesia's constitution. Of particular concern was the focus of theQanun on morality and women, and especially raids against women where they have been publicly humiliated and verbally abused. On 9 March 2005 (International Women's Day) 1000 Acehnese marched in protest accusing the officials responsible for enforcing Shari'ah with unfairly targeting women.
Some had hoped the peace agreement between the government and GAM would provide a basis for legitimate political reform that would create an opportunity to reverse the more debatable elements of Shari'ah implementation. GAM leaders, including Malik Mahmood, had expressed their opposition to the way Shari'ah was being implemented. The MoU determined that the legal code for Aceh would be redrafted 'on the basis of the universal principles of human rights as provided for in the United Nations International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' (article 1.4.2). However, this seems to have had little effect. The Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA) passed in 2006 included 16 articles on Shari'ah effectively giving the province permission to apply Shari'ah criminal legislation. Women were sidelined in the LoGA deliberations.
Many GAM candidates came to power in the 2006 elections for Governor, Mayors and Regents, including Governor Irwandi Yusuf, who promised to block the more extreme provisions being proposed, such as the punishment of cutting off hands for thieves. However, elections to the provincial and regional assemblies are not due until 2009 and therefore the legislators who passed these laws (mainly from national political parties) are still in power. This has meant that the new GAM leadership does not have the votes in parliament to reverse the existing Qanun on Shari'ah even if they were willing to invest political capital in an enterprise which might lead them to be condemned by the ulama as irreligious. A new religious bureaucracy – the Dinas Shari'ah with its enforcement arm, the wilayatul hisbah made up of otherwise unemployable religious graduates, has been established which will be very difficult to dismantle.
The first laws on Shari'ah in Aceh were drawn up with little public participation by the unrepresentative and corrupt parliament chosen in the 1999 elections that were boycotted by a large percentage of the population. The current Aceh Provincial Representative Assembly (DPRA) is more representative, but it only represents Jakarta-based political parties. These parties – including some Islamic parties – did poorly in the 2006 local elections in which the big winners were quite distinctly not the ones using Islamic rhetoric in their campaigns. It remains to be seen if the locally-based political parties which will participate in the elections for the first time in 2009 will be willing to invest political capital and develop policies on the issue of rolling back the Shari'ah or whether they will regard it as too risky.