Jun 19, 2019 Last Updated 4:30 AM, Jun 18, 2019

Blasphemy on the rise

Published: Jan 20, 2019

Rafiqa Qurrata A’yun

During the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or Ahok), the incumbent candidate, a Christian of Chinese ancestry, was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in jail. This year, in the lead up to Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election there was another high profile blasphemy conviction, when Meliana, a Buddhist woman of Chinese heritage, was sentenced to eighteen months’ jail for complaining about the volume of the mosque loudspeakers in her neighbourhood in North Sumatra. In October 2018, Meliana’s appeal was rejected by judges of the North Sumatra High Court. This case is indicative of the rising number of blasphemy prosecutions that are occurring as religion becomes increasingly politicised in democratic Indonesia.

The complaint

The case began in July 2016 when Meliana complained to the one of her neighbours that the mosque’s speakers used for the adzan (call to prayer) were too loud. At first the village leader treated Meliana’s complaint as an issue that was appropriate to be resolved through mediation. Although some people said that Meliana had blasphemed, according to her lawyer, Ranto Sibarani, the caretaker of the mosque had forgiven Meliana for this. However, a rumour spread in her neighbourhood that Meliana wanted to ban adzan altogether. This rumour provoked public anger, and in the following week vigilantes burned down numerous Buddhist temples. The eight rioters were arrested and convicted, receiving jail terms of one to four months.

After investigating the riot, the local police described Meliana as the provocateur and formally accused her of blasphemy. However, in August 2016 the director of the Criminal Investigation Agency of the Indonesian National Police (Bareskrim Polri) stated that Meliana’s request that the volume of the mosque’s loudspeakers be reduced did not amount to blasphemy. As a consequence, six months after Meliana complained about the noise from the mosque, the police were yet to lay a charge for blasphemy.

Within the same period, a series of mass rallies in Jakarta were organised by a vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), along with Ahok’s political opponents to pressure the police to declare Ahok a blasphemy suspect. This inspired the Alliance of the Students and Independent Communities (Aliansi Mahasiswa dan Masyarakat Independent Bersatu) in North Sumatra to request a fatwa from the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI) of Tanjungbalai region in early January 2017, stating that Meliana has insulted Islam. The MUI is a quasi-state organisation that is responsible for producing religious opinions which serve as the main reference when police name blasphemy suspects. At this time, the MUI still did not issue a fatwa. However, the North Sumatra branch of Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organisation, Muhammadiyah, did release a statement attributing Meliana with responsibility for provoking the riot.

In mid-January 2017, the leader of the FPI Rizieq Shihab visited Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, to drum up support for the Islamic movement inspired by the anti-Ahok rallies. A week later, on 24 January 2017, the MUI of North Sumatra finally released a fatwa, accusing Meliana of blasphemy. This fatwa became the basis for the police continuing their investigation and bringing the case to court. It also became the main evidence used by the judge in finding Meliana guilt of blasphemy.

Guidance but no regulation

In many places in Indonesia, recitations from the Qur’an are played on mosque loudspeakers before and after the five daily calls to prayer. Although this is a long-established practice, it is not unheard of for disputes to arise about volume. However, this is the first time such as dispute has resulted in the criminal prosecution of the complainant. There was a civil case related to a similar issue recorded in 2013 in Aceh, but the charge was eventually revoked because of pressure from locals.

The government has tried to prevent such disputes through instructions issued by the director general for Islamic community guidance at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The idea of limiting the use of loud speakers has also been suggested by leading Islamic figures, including the late Abdurrahman Wahid – a former Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) leader who was also known as moderate Islamic thinker. Vice President Jusuf Kalla – an NU advisory board member – has also recommended moderating the volume of adzan. Yet this suggestion is hardly ever taken up by mosques, even those affiliated with NU, and many still use high volume loudspeakers.

An anti-Ahok protestor on 2 December 2016 Source/Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir

A new type of blasphemy

Meliana’s conviction has added to a growing number of blasphemy cases. More than 130 people have been convicted of blasphemy since the beginning of the democratic era in 1998, a ten-fold increase from the previous authoritarian period. Indonesia’s blasphemy law (article 156a of the Criminal Code) defines blasphemy as an act which ‘has the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion adhered to in Indonesia’, when this is done with ‘the intention to prevent a person adhering to any religion based on belief in the almighty God.’ Notably, although the definition theoretically includes an act blaspheming one of the official religions in Indonesian other than Islam –Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – in most of the recorded cases people have been convicted of blaspheming Islam.

Prior to Meliana’s conviction, three main kinds of actions had led to blasphemy prosecutions. First, cases related to different interpretations of religion, when a member of a religious minority promotes an idea that the majority considers deviant. Second, cases where the defendant has insulted a part of a religion or a religious symbol, as Ahok was found to have done when he quoted a Qur’anic verse and insinuated that the verse has been used by his political opponents to deceive voters. The third case is related to the proselytisation.

Meliana’s case can be understood as a new kind of blasphemous act. Since blasphemy is not comprehensively defined, the decision may become a new precedent for interpreting other complaints about noisy mosque loudspeakers as blasphemy. However, it should be kept in mind that such legal problems would be unlikely to emerge separately from the politicisation of religion, as part of a strategy to mobilise conservative Muslims in the contests over power.

The future of blasphemy

In 2009, 2012, and 2017 rights activist and representatives of the Ahmadiyya community petitioned the Constitutional Court to repeal Law No.1/PNPS/1965 as the basis of the current blasphemy law, but the petitions were rejected. On the contrary, more recently, a provision which extends the criminal prohibition on blasphemy has been included in the mass organisation law passed by President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), which could allow for the criminalisation of members of an organisation that indirectly engages in blasphemy. The latest draft of the Criminal Code amendment also expands the blasphemy offence.

In the lead up to the 2019 presidential election, no political campaigns advocate revoking the law. Indeed, it would seem that both pairs of candidates, Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amien and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno, support the use of the blasphemy law because it is endorsed by conservative Muslims. Jokowi’s decision to choose Ma’ruf Amin – the MUI’s chairman who released the fatwa that supported Ahok’s blasphemy case – as his running mate indicates that he considers garnering the support of conservative Muslims to be more important than minority rights. In the case of Prabowo and Sandiaga, their support for the blasphemy law is also unsurprising given the support they receive from the so-called ‘212 Alumni’, the collection of hardline Islamic groups that participated in the protest against Ahok on 2 December 2016.

The stance of the candidates who are running in the 2019 presidential election may well indicate that Indonesia’s blasphemy law is likely to continue to be regularly used in future. Given that the use of the blasphemy law indirectly allows politicians to mobilise support from conservative Muslims, more are likely to be charged with the offence in future, in line with escalating identity politics. As a result, blasphemy convictions and discrimination against minority groups are also likely to increase.

Rafiqa Qurrata A’yun (rafiqa.qa@ui.ac.id) is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 134: Oct-Dec 2018

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