Acehnese, Islam and foreigners: Clearing up the misapprehension

13 Apr 2005
Aguswandi, TAPOL
Appeared in: 

Do the Acehnese hate foreigners? Do they want the many foreign aid workers laboring to help them to leave their villages? Are the Acehnese, you may ask, fanatical Muslims?

The departure of some foreign aid groups and all foreign troops from Aceh signaled the supposed end of what the government called the emergency post-tsunami period (not to be confused with the civil emergency still in place in Aceh), and given some of the mendacious statements made about the foreign presence in Aceh in this period, it is important to offer some clarification about the Acehnese, Islam and their view of foreigners.

Without such clarification the path is left clear for incorrect assessments, like last month's statement by Indonesian defense minister Juwono Sudarsono in Washington D.C. Juwono reportedly hinted that Christian groups needed to leave Aceh because the locals were uncomfortable with their presence.

The same could be said of the actions of members of some militant Islamic groups being allowed into Aceh. In a mosque in Banda Aceh, members of these groups have urged the Acehnese to rise up against foreigners. They have also been very active writing graffiti such as "Foreigners out of Aceh" in some areas. Some groups have also spread rumors that foreign aid workers are attempting to Christianize local people.

However, in a refugee camp in Aceh Besar, an image quite contrary to these sentiments could be seen. A banner raised by Acehnese stated, "Don't leave Aceh", in an appeal to foreign aid workers. Even more interestingly, in western areas in Aceh, people prefer to seek medical aid from foreign posts than from the nearby government post. In many places the locals have greeted foreigners with a warm welcome. Many of those asked have stated that they are very grateful for the presence of numerous foreign troops and foreign aid workers.

So while we are hearing statements about the Acehnese hating foreigners from non-Acehnese groups claiming to speak on behalf of the locals, we can also see quite clearly that the locals actually feel very comfortable with the presence of so many foreigners in their villages. What is dangerous is if outsiders have little or no knowledge about Aceh, as they may believe that the locals really do not want a foreigner presence as they are fanatical Islamists.

Misrepresenting the Acehnese as fanatical and claiming that they hate foreigners, and Christian groups more specifically, is just one of the cheap propaganda lines being put out about Aceh. It is quite easy to present the local community as hostile to non-Muslims as the Acehnese are predominantly Muslim. In this odd world of ours today, being a devout Muslim is seen as synonymous with fanaticism or, even worse, terrorism. But in the case of Aceh, as in many others, this is absolutely wrong. The people of Aceh are not fanatics.

It is a historical fact that the Acehnese are immensely tolerant of foreigners, regardless of their religion, skin color or ethnicity. This is in part due to the geographical location of their island, which promoted high flows of travel to and from foreign lands. Historians have made special note of the high level of Acehnese interaction with other peoples, notably during the golden age of Aceh's sultanate. As sociologist Otto Syamsuddin has said, this historical mobility gave the Acehnese a very cosmopolitan legacy.

The ongoing conflict in Aceh has also prompted many Acehnese to broaden their understanding of the meaning of their relationships with other peoples. Those of different religions or skin color can be friends, while those that supposedly share their beliefs may not necessarily be friends.

This has led to a more flexible definition of us and them, foreign and non-foreign, infidel and devoted. Ordinary Acehnese use the word kafir (infidel) in reference to those who visit injustices upon them, regardless of their religion. This word can also apply to Muslims. Infidels may be friends, irrespective of their religion, as long as they do not visit injustice on the locals. The issue here is not one of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, the only infidel is a perpetrator of cruelty.

As a result of the lack of Muslim solidarity for the plight of the Acehnese, many Acehnese distrust Muslim nationalists in Indonesia. A clear indication of this fear can be seen in the many demands by Acehnese groups for the international community to help them resolve the conflict in Aceh. The Acehnese understanding of what it means to be Islamic has become increasingly inclusive. The province's Islam is becoming somewhat unique; friendly to those that have different beliefs, and deeply suspicious of some of those who claim to share the same religious values as them.

It was, therefore, an absurdity when in 2001 the central government imposed sharia (Islamic) law in Aceh. They suggested that it would be a route to solving the conflict in the province. Yet the locals had not been asking for sharia, they had been asking for justice to be done and for those that had committed crimes against the Acehnese to be, regardless of their religion, brought to justice. The present conflict in Aceh has nothing to do with religion. It is a conflict based on injustice practices and policies from a central government -- which happens largely to be Muslim as well.

People of different faiths are not a problem for the locals because the most important thing is not the name of their faith, but what these people are doing in Aceh. This was clear even during the 1998 riots across Indonesia where Chinese and Christian communities were targeted -- yet this did not happen in Aceh. Those groups felt safe in Aceh. There has never been any conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in Aceh. There have been no incidents caused by religion disputes. There are two major Christian churches in Aceh, and not only did they survive the tsunami but they have been protected by locals from any harm.

Islam has often been used by interested elements, predominantly non-Achenese, to distract people from the real issues in Aceh. Now, once again, the fact that the Acehnese are Muslim is being used to drive a wedge between those that would help and those that need help. This must be challenged and prevented from undermining the reconstruction and the longer-term peace process in Aceh.

Tagged: Aceh