Martyrdom and blasphemy in Indonesia

According to a poll on almost 43 percent of American Christians think they are being persecuted in their own land. Another 34.6 percent said they soon would be. I guess anyone reading such a site would be inclined to have such beliefs. But even if the results were accurate, American Christians aren’t the only followers of religion who believe they are being oppressed.

Muslims in Indonesia make up around 90 percent of the population. Even so, read the statements of some of their leaders and you’d think they were a small downtrodden minority fighting for their basic rights. You see it not only in the justifications for violence against Westerners and “apostates” given by fanatics like Abu Bakar Bashir, but also in the views of moderates like Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali. 

Suryadharma last week defended the 1965 Blasphemy Law on the grounds that without it a plethora of new religions would emerge and create disharmony (read violent backlash by Islamist extremists). The law has been challenged by human rights groups and late president Abrurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, a leading Muslim scholar and icon of Indonesia’s pluralistic traditions who died of old age in December before his petition had been heard in court.

Wahid understood that Muslims have nothing to fear in Indonesia, and devoted himself to promoting understanding and tolerance toward genuinely oppressed minorities. If only he had been appreciated by people like Suryadharma, who said in a speech that the “consequences [if the law is abolished] are that people, figures, could establish new religions, declare new prophets, new angels”. Notwithstanding the total lack of evidence for such statements, why the minister is so sure that new angels would be inherently bad or no better than those of mainstream religions is unclear.

Someone had to see the hand of Zionists in all this, and Thahir Azhary from Islamic group Al Irsyad Al Islamiyyah obliged: “Are there foreign political interests at work here? Zionists? We cannot just import freedom from the Western world. Those non-Muslim Westerners only want to mislead us.”

You expect to hear stuff like that from certain people in Indonesia. What’s really scary is the Constitutional Court has heard testimony from the likes of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. These are radical Islamist vigilante groups known for their unprovoked armed attacks on minorities and even moderates who do not agree with their extremist views. Listening to them on the rights and wrongs of the blasphemy law is like asking the Hells Angels for their input on drugs policy. The government is unable and/or unwilling to outlaw these groups, possibly because to do so would only appear to prove the extremists’ constant gripe that Indonesian Muslims are being oppressed and need a strong arm of defence.

Witnesses in favour of the petition have included relatively reasonable religious scholars and legal experts who have noted, repeatedly, that Indonesia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and as such should scrub the blasphemy law off its books once and for all.

There is real persecution in this world, and worried Indonesians need only look as far as the plight of the minority Ahmadiya Islamic sect. The Ahmadis in Indonesia and Pakistan know only too well how blasphemy laws are used by powerful majorities to beat down minorities with unorthodox traditions. By comparison, the US Christians and Indonesian Muslim majority don’t have much to complain about.


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