Indonesian court upholds blasphemy law

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has thrown out a challenge to the country’s 1965 blasphemy law brought by human rights groups, democracy advocates, minorities and moderate Muslims including late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. The court ruled that the law did not contravene the country’s constitution, dealing a massive blow to human rights in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

The law forbids anyone to “publicise, recommend or organise public support” for new religions or different interpretations of the mainstream versions of six faiths: Islam (Sunni), Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism (not that Catholicism and Protestantism are different faiths, that’s just how they appear in the law). The maximum penalty for doing so is five years’ jail. It effectively forces everyone, even atheists, to believe in one of the above religions, even though the constitution guarantees freedom of belief. As usual in Indonesia, the court’s ruling has left more than a few people scratching their heads.

The pluralists and moderates who lodged the petition put forward dozens of expert witnesses including US Professor Cole Durham, an expert on religious freedom, who noted: “it is equally important to remember that, except in most repressive regimes, apostasy and heresy fall under religious, not civil, jurisdiction”.

Five hundred police were on hand at the court as the judges read their decision, after threats of violence from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a violent Islamist vigilante group which the government seems unable or unwilling to outlaw. FPI thugs heckled witnesses for the petitioners and beat up their lawyers on the last day of hearings.

One of their targets was Islamic scholar Luthfi Assyaukanie, a lecturer from Jakarta’s Paramadina University and cofounder of the Jakarta-based Liberal Islam Network. Appearing on behalf of the petitioners, he made the obvious point that even the Prophet Mohammad had at one time been the leader of a heterodox religious minority who would have faced five years’ jail under Indonesia’s blasphemy law.  He compared Mohammad to Lia Aminuddin, the leader of a sect called the Kingdom of Eden who was jailed last year for blasphemy. “Some people think she is crazy and even persecute her, just like the Prophet Mohammad in the beginning,” he said.

Unperturbed by the insults that had been hurled at him from the fanatics in the gallery, he went on:

I’m sure that both Sunni and Shia followers each believe that they are the most correct and true… The problem with our Constitution is that it allows the religious majority power to do anything in the name of defending their religious rights. We have seen, during violent attacks, it’s usually started by the majority who think they have the right to do it.

If only Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar had the Muslim scholar’s bravery. Both came out publicly opposing the petition as the court was still conducting its hearings. As I have noted before, Suryadharma claimed that the law was necessary to ensure social harmony (read placate violent Islamic extremists who the government is too weak to confront) and prevent an explosion of “new religions”.

The fact that Islam was once a new religion seems completely lost on the religious affairs minister. Likewise notions of freedom of belief.

(Photo by Craig Coultier via flickr)

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