Indonesia’s blasphemy laws oppress religious minorities

By Max Walden | 23 Dec 16
Ahok takes a selfie with fans at the Al-Huda Mosque in central Jakarta on Mawlid, the holiday that marks the prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

Standing outside the courtroom, hardline Islamic protesters called for the death of Jakarta’s sitting governor whom they insulted as a “Chinese dog”.

The blasphemy trial for Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, began last week. The ethnically Chinese governor was charged for blasphemy after a video went viral that appeared to show him insulting the Quran. “It is clear what I said in the Thousand Islands was not intended to interpret the (Quran), let alone to insult Islam or the ulema,” said a teary Ahok during the proceedings.

The rhetoric of demonstrators outside the court is familiar, who have in recent months labelled him a pig, a psychopath and the anti-Christ, as well as calling for “a million spears” to be brought to anti-Ahok protests.

Having campaigned against Ahok for years on the basis of his Christianity and ethnic Chinese heritage, the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have seized on his alleged blasphemy as a chance to rally more moderate Muslims against the incumbent. Back in 2014 when he was replacing running-mate and now-president Joko Widodo as governor, the FPI stood outside his office and threatened to “kill Ahok” and “rid Jakarta of all its ethnic Chinese residents.”

This year has seen a fresh wave of anti-Ahok demonstrations, spurred by his gaffe in the Thousand Islands. On November 4 some 150,000 hardline Islamists took to the streets in a protest that descended into rioting and violence against police. On Friday December 2, a mass prayer against him held in central Jakarta was the single largest religious event in Indonesian history. These protests, led by radical groups who endorse an Islamic state, precipitated fears of a coup against democratically-elected president Jokowi.

Ahok is the most prominent Indonesian to ever be charged with blasphemy. But whilst this may be the most high-profile case to date, it is certainly not the first.

Indonesia’s blasphemy laws and anti-minority sentiment

Blasphemy legislation has been used to suppress religious minorities in Indonesia since democracy’s emergence in 1998, a period marked by mass violence and impunity for crimes against communities like the Chinese, Christians, and minority sects of Islam like Shia and the Ahmadi.

Indonesian religious rights watchdog the Setara Institute has documented rising violence and suppression towards religious minorities over the last decade. And while political watchdog Freedom House states Indonesia is proof democracy “remains vibrant outside of the global north”, it classifies Southeast Asia’s largest country as only “partially free” due to ongoing concerns regarding freedom of the press and discrimination against religious minorities.

The Ahok case reflects underlying anti-minority sentiment in the country. Anti-blasphemy legislation legitimises this intolerance and ignores crimes against Christians, Buddhists and other faith communities.

The push to overturn Indonesia’s blasphemy laws

Human Rights Watch has long called for Indonesia to repeal discriminatory legislation such as the 1965 Blasphemy Law, which it says provides impunity for persecution and attacks on minority groups. The so-called “religious harmony” laws introduced under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) – whose son is running against Ahok in the current electoral race – entrenched religious discrimination, for example by making it more difficult for minority religious groups to establish places of worship. SBY’s cabinet ministers also issued provocative statements against minority groups. The religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali said in 2011 that “we have to ban the Ahmadiyah. It is obvious that Ahmadiyah is against Islam.”

Most recently, blasphemy legislation was employed against 7000 members of the Gafatar community, whose practices combine Islam with teachings from Christianity and Judaism. After local Malay and Dayak showed their objection to the group’s presence by looting their properties, the government moved them to safety but subsequently threatened the Gafatar with prosecutions for blasphemy and “religious re-education” for believing in “deviant teachings.” The former leaders of this group have since been charged with blasphemy and treason.

Just this month, a report by the International Humanist Ethical Union listed Indonesia, along with Brunei and Malaysia, as the worst violator of rights and religious freedoms in Southeast Asia. It observed that faith communities outside of the six recognised official religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – “continue to experience official discrimination” in fundamental ways such as when registering marriages and births. It also cited the rising application of Sharia law in the province of Aceh, where the government forces women to wear Islamic dress code regardless of their faith and issues corporal punishment for “crimes” such as drinking alcohol and having extra-marital sex.

In the context of the Ahok case, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation has said that blasphemy legislation restricts freedom of speech and is too broadly defined, meaning that anything could be considered a violation. The organisation’s chairman, Alvon Kurnia Palma, asserted that “we have to use the perspective of human rights and democracy first and use a criminal charge as the last resort.”

Activists have twice filed judicial reviews with the Constitutional Court against the 1965 blasphemy law in both 2008 and 2013, but the court ruled against them claiming the legislation is necessary to maintain public order. One dissenting judge, however, stated the legislation was “a product of the past,” and that “wrongful acts were being carried out against minority groups in its name.” The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas Ham) criticised the ruling, accusing the court of failing to uphold protections enshrined under Indonesia’s 1945 constitution.

Justice may yet be served in the case of Ahok. The multi-faith panel of five judges appointed to preside over the case inspires confidence.

But in the long-run, the preservation of human rights in Indonesia ultimately relies upon overturning the 1965 Blasphemy Law and subsequent discriminatory legislation that limits freedom of religion and endangers the lives of Indonesia’s diverse minority communities.

As the Ahok case demonstrates the very existence of the democratic, pluralist Republic of Indonesia could depend on it.