Human rights groups have appealed to Indonesian authorities to revise or abolish the country’s blasphemy laws, stepping up calls they have made repeatedly over the past decade.
Amnesty International Indonesia made the latest such demand in April after the Supreme Court rejected on March 26 a case review petition by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former Christian governor of Jakarta.
Also known as Ahok, the jailed ex-governor was seeking to get his blasphemy conviction overturned and cut short his two-year prison sentence. He was convicted for commenting on a Quranic verse that he claimed his political rivals had used to discredit him during his 2017 re-election campaign.
Indonesia enacted its first blasphemy law in 1965 but defamation of religion is also regulated in Article 156a of the Criminal Code.
The main concern of human rights and other groups is that the latter is applied on a seemingly arbitrary basis. They decry this a threat to democracy that has resulted in numerous people being incarcerated unjustly.
The article has often been used to serve political interests while bowing to pressure from majority groups.
In many cases blasphemy accusations are accompanied by mass protests and, sadly, investigations and court rulings are steered by the strongest and loudest supporters.
In October 2009 an examination of the blasphemy law was submitted to the Constitutional Court. Over 30 people testified, including moderate Muslim cleric Hasyim Muzadi of Nahdlatul Ulama, Jesuit Father Franz Magnis Suseno and writer Arswendo Atmowiloto.
Atmowiloto conducted a poll of people’s favorite celebrities that was published in The Monitor, a newspaper he managed over a quarter of a century ago.
According to the results of the poll, he ranked No.10 on the list one slot above the Prophet Muhammad. This sparked a public outcry and the writer found himself jailed for five years.
However, the court turned down his request to review the law. In handing down its ruling it provided no justification for the decision, merely saying that all blasphemy charges are handled according to legal principles.
Amnesty International claims that more than 100 people have been prosecuted and convicted for religious defamation over the last 12 years, including 12 in 2017 alone.
Meanwhile, police are now investigating accusations of blasphemy against Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, the third daughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, and against Amien Rais, the former chairman of the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly and the founder of the Islamic-based National Mandate Party.
Sukmawati was accused of insulting Islam through a poem, while Rais was held to account for a political statement he made that dichotomized “Satanic parties and divine parties.”
Despite the ongoing probe, some observers have expressed concern they will escape punishment as they enjoy the backing of powerful lobby groups
Sukmawati has since met with many Muslim clerics to apologize while Rais appears unconcerned because he is supported by a number of influential Islamic organizations.
A modern-day anachronism
The request to revoke the law was based on the argument that it was created during an emergency situation over 50 years ago and is no longer relevant given that Indonesia is a modern democracy.
The law, particularly Article 156a, has been criticized as a form of state encroachment on religious life, which belong to the private sphere.
It also stands accused of protecting the six major religions of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism while neglecting minority religions and traditional beliefs, which are therefore more vulnerable and susceptible to harassment.
Rights activists are concerned by what they claim is a willful neglect of the due process of law when accusations of blasphemy are filed and processed.
Instead, they say, the accused are immediately held as being guilty.
The nation’s blasphemy law is too elastic, making it subject to abuse. In most cases, religious sentiment or bias becomes the dominant factor in determining whether the suspects were really at fault, as opposed to the objective consideration of their actions.
As such, the law effectively shuts out rational argument and tramples on what most would consider sound legal principles. In other words, the application of Article 156a has derailed the law from its legal context.
In many cases, investigations and court decisions focus exclusively on defamation and ignore whether the accused intended to influence people by encouraging them to abandon their religion.
However, any blasphemy charge should always include due consideration of this.
Due to the unclear definition of the law, judges are given too free rein to make subjective decisions that may well be influenced by their own religious beliefs. In other rulings, they have been seen as bowing to public pressure, often manifested in the form of mass protests.
Rights activists say Indonesia’s religious defamation law goes against the spirit if not the letter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the government ratified in 2005 with a law to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Powerful silencing tool
The inclusion in the Criminal Code of a law designed to crack down on defamation of religion came in response to political events in January 1965 that threatened to spiral out of control.
Its birth is inseparable from a decree aimed at curbing the desecration of holy places and religious slights or insults issued by former president Sukarno on Jan. 20 of that year. It was later extracted into article 156a.
The decree was promulgated only a few weeks after the Indonesian Communist Party massacred hundreds of Muslim clerics and students in Madiun, East Java while they were engaged in dawn prayers. The Quran and other symbols of Islam were also trampled on.
It was also published to accommodate requests from Islamic organizations that were loath to give traditional religious beliefs room to grow. Such beliefs were seen as tarnishing established religions.
According to a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2013 titled, “In the Name of Religion,” conservative Muslim communities requested back in the early 1960s that Sukarno’s government take action to stamp out mysticism, the teachings of which were seen as a threat to and stain on Islam.
Many followers of traditional beliefs at the time were perceived to be violating the law, undermining national unity, and desecrating religion. Pressing Sukarno to issue his presidential decree — the basis of the current blasphemy law — was seen a long-term solution.
During Suharto’s subsequent New Order, a term he used to distinguish his regime from that of Sukarno’s after he rose to power in 1966, it became a powerful political tool, one Suharto used to maintain public order and silence troublemakers.
Tightening the grip
Islamic organizations remain firm in their belief that calls or petitions to abolish the law must be firmly opposed.
Last year they even challenged the United Nations, demanding it not intervene after it appealed to the government to abolish the law.
They argued that if the law was removed it would open the door for people to insult other people’s religions at will without fear of punishment or reprisal, thus threatening the fabric of society as conflicts escalated.
They said the law helps regulate social harmony making it crucial in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation.
Islamists say it guarantees people’s freedom to choose their own religions and practice it freely without fear of being harmed by others.
And their calls rarely fall on deaf ears, it seems, with the government and parliament now gearing up to expand rather than reduce the scope of this contentious law.
Recent media reports claim legislators have widened the compass of articles 156 and 156a in their latest draft of the Criminal Code, which is now being deliberated by the nation’s parliament. If so, more “innocent” people could face time behind bars if the amendments are approved.
Judging by the ease with which defamation of religion cases can bypass the legal framework, fears are mounting that the revised law will serve as a “magic wand” that majority groups can wield at will to heap pressure on minority groups or their political rivals.
Maybe now would be an appropriate time to break the spell.
Published in UCA News May 23 2018: No fury like Indonesia’s blasphemy law