Radical Islam Uses Indonesian ‘Blasphemy’ Law a Weapon

by | May 16, 2011 | Charisma Archive

indonesiacroppedOn Feb. 6 in
Indonesia, Muslim hardliners armed with machetes brutally murdered three
members of a “blasphemous” Muslim sect in the village of Cikeusik, West
Java. Five other members escaped with severe injuries; police were
present but did not intervene.

The attack followed two
years of violence sparked by a June 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree
banning public worship for the Ahmadiyah, whose members believe that
their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet of Islam, rather
than Muhammad.

On Feb. 8, a large mob gathered outside a
courthouse in Temanggung, Central Java, chanting “Kill, kill!” after
judges awarded Antonius Richmond Bawengan, a Roman Catholic, the maximum
five-year sentence for blasphemy. By nightfall some 1,000 people had
rampaged through the town burning vehicles, two churches and a
church-run school, injuring nine people in the process. (See www.compassdirect.org, “After Attacks, Christian Leaders in Indonesia Decry Lax Security,” Feb. 11.)

Three days later, prosecutors in Jakarta sentenced Murhali Barda, a regional leader of the hardline Front Pembela Islam (FPI
or Islamic Defenders Front) to only five-and-a-half months in prison
and fined him the equivalent of 10 US cents for orchestrating an attack
on a Protestant church in which two Christians were seriously injured.
(See www.compassdirect.org, “Light Sentences for Attack on Christians in Indonesia Condemned,” March 10.)

These
events, occurring in a single week, provide a snapshot of the rising
fanaticism that has seriously damaged Indonesia’s reputation as a
moderate Islamic nation.

“The real root of the country’s religious intolerance is the 1965 Blasphemy Law,” wrote Armando Siahaan in a recent Jakarta Globe report.
Many observers agree that the 1965 law and associated legislation,
coupled with a lack of political will to curb hard-line groups, are to
blame for the steep climb in religious violence.

‘Enmity’ Towards Religion
Last
October, Bawengan distributed a book he’d written that criticized the
Catholic faith and allegedly handed out pamphlets that described sacred
Islamic symbols as phallic images, according to local news reports.

Catholics,
while offended – and falsely blamed for Bawengan’s remarks about Islam –
did not accuse him of blasphemy against the Catholic Church. The state,
however, found him guilty of blasphemy against Islam under Article
156(A) of the penal code, which stipulates up to five years in prison
for anyone who publicly shows “enmity” or “abuses or stains” a religion
adhered to in Indonesia, or prevents other people from adhering to such a
religion.

The maximum sentence under Article 156(A) is
surprisingly lenient compared with blasphemy punishments in other
countries, but this is likely due to Indonesia’s founding principle of Pancasila, which strives for “unity in diversity.”

Protestants
are rarely prosecuted under this law, although police in April 2007
arrested 41 members of the Indonesian Students Service Agency and
charged them with blasphemy under Article 156(A) for allegedly depicting
the Quran as the “source of all evil” in Indonesia. A court in East
Java sentenced all 41 defendants to the maximum five years in prison in
September 2007, although they were granted a reprieve in August 2008,
according to The Jakarta Post.

In December 2008, a
student in Masohi, Maluku, claimed that his Christian teacher,
Welhelmina Holle, had insulted Islam. When the Majelis Ulama Indonesia
(MUI or Indonesian Clerics Council) filed a complaint with police, a
mob of at least 300 protestors gathered outside the local regent’s
office; a riot broke out, with the mob burning dozens of homes, a church
and a village hall.

According to local media reports, one
of the protestors carried a banner that stated with inadvertent irony,
“Don’t destroy the peace with blind fanaticism!”

Military
and riot police eventually stopped the violence, but Holle was detained,
found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to a year in prison, along with
former parliamentary candidate Asmara Wasahua, who was charged only
with inciting the riot.

Insult v. Incitement to Hatred
Article
156(A) is based on Law No. 1/1965, introduced by President Sukarno in
1964 and more commonly known as Indonesia’s 1965 Blasphemy Law. Article 1
of Sukarno’s law prohibits anyone from intentionally trying to gain
public support for a religion or participating in religious activities
that might be considered a deviation of a recognized religion.

Sukarno enacted the law after critics said that Pancasila offered little protection for the Muslim majority.

The
law officially recognized six religions – Islam (88 percent of the
population of 238 million), Protestantism (6 percent) Catholicism (3
percent), Hinduism (2 percent) Buddhism and Confucianism (both less than
1 percent) – but orders the state not to interfere in the practice of
other religions such as Ahmadiyah, currently numbering between 100,000
to 400,000 adherents. These figures are based on a census carried out in
2000; the results of a 2010 census have not yet been released.

In 2005, however, the MUI issued a fatwa
or religious opinion against the Ahmadiyah and urged President Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono to ban the sect. Under pressure from hard-line groups
and Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, the government issued a
Joint Ministerial Decree in 2008 forbidding Ahmadis to worship publicly
on the grounds that they had deviated from true Islam – an act
qualifying as blasphemy under the 1965 law.

The decree
drove adherents underground and gave tacit permission for hardliners to
attack Ahmadi communities throughout Indonesia with little fear of
prosecution – culminating in the Cikeusik murders on Feb. 6.

The
1965 law, Article 156(A) of the penal code and the 2008 Ahmadiyah
decree clearly contravene international law, which differentiates
between simple religious insult and incitement to hostile and violent
actions, according to an October 2010 Freedom House report entitled
“Policing Belief.” Only incitement to hatred can be legitimately
restricted, whereas freedom of expression includes the right to
offensive or controversial religious comment.

International
law also allows for freedom of belief, contradicted by Indonesia’s
requirement that every citizen choose one of the six official religions
and display it on his or her identity card. Atheism or adherence to an
unrecognized religion is simply not an option, clashing with Article 29
of Indonesia’s constitution, which stipulates that all citizens may
choose and practice their own religion.

State-Sanctioned Violence
In
2010 the FPI and a new group, the Bekasi Islamic Presidium, launched a
campaign against “Christianization” in West Java, accusing local
churches of aggressively trying to win Muslim converts – a behavior that
could be labeled blasphemous under Article 156(A).

The
hardliners pledged to set up a youth army in order to monitor and attack
churches suspected of “Christianization.” While this act in itself
could be regarded as “enmity” under Article 156(A), Yudhoyono simply
appealed for tolerance and took no action against the organizers. (See www.compassdirect.org, “Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to Christianization,” July 2, 2010.)

The
charge of “Christianization” was also leveled against three Christian
teachers in Indramayu, West Java in 2005, after they allowed Muslim
children to attend a Sunday school program with spoken consent from
their parents. Busloads of Muslim hardliners chanting “Allahu Akhbar
[God is greater]” surrounded and filled the courtroom, threatening to
carry the teachers out in coffins if they were not found guilty. The
teachers served three years in jail. (See www.compassdirect.org, “Teachers Appeal ‘Christianization’ Conviction in Indonesia,” Sept. 23, 2005.)

The
FPI has also used the term in multiple protests against unregistered
churches in West Java. In response, the government in 2006 revised a
Joint Ministerial Decree governing places of worship, making it
virtually impossible for congregations to obtain a worship permit and
leaving them vulnerable to attack.

Setara researcher Ismail
Hasani has said he believes a new wave of radicalization is sweeping
through the suburban regions of Jakarta, partly due to new legislation
built on existing blasphemy laws, and partly due to the implied or
actual support provided by police and government officials. For example,
after West Java Gov. Ahmad Heryawan banned Ahmadiyah worship on March
3, by mid-April at least 400 Ahmadis had converted to Islam, according
to the Jakarta Globe.

Officials in West Java
arranged public conversion ceremonies for the Ahmadis, despite this
practice being contrary to provisions in Article 156(A). In one
ceremony, 13 Ahmadis in Bogor recited the Muslim confession of faith,
accepting Muhammad as the last prophet. Their confession came just days
after local residents repeatedly hurled rocks at their homes, the Globe reported.

Local official Eros Kusniawati, however, told reporters that the 13 had converted willingly.

“We’ll
hold another ceremony for the seven others who wanted to convert but
couldn’t attend today, and for the five others who still refuse to
repent,” he said.

Courts Bow to Mobs
Last September, a mob led by local FPI head Barda confronted members of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant Church (HKBP)
in Ciketing, West Java, which has struggled for years to obtain legal
permission to worship. During the clash, hardliners stabbed church elder
Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing in the stomach and beat the Rev. Luspida
Simanjuntak over the head with a wooden beam in a clear case of “enmity”
against another religion.

Judges on March 10 awarded sentences of just five to seven months to the perpetrators.

In
this climate of impunity, attacks on churches and religious sects have
increased dramatically over the past three years. The Setara Institute
of Peace and Democracy recorded 75 religious attacks in 2010, up from 18
in 2009 and 17 in 2008. In the same year, the Wahid Institute recorded
196 cases of religious violence, an increase of almost 50 percent from
2009, while the Moderate Muslim Society recorded 81 cases, an increase
of more than 30 percent from 2009.

A significant percentage
of these attacks were against Christian churches, with others directed
against the Ahmadiyah, but neither Christians nor Ahmadis have invoked
the “enmity” clause in Article 156(A).

“The FPI have
established fear in so many hearts, including the courts and the
government, that we all feel it would be less troubling to just ‘let it
go,’” a local Christian leader who requested anonymity told Compass.
“Also, this is Indonesia – justice depends on who is bringing someone to
court and who they know. And in religious cases, the radicals pressure
the judges and let them know when they’re not happy with a verdict.”

In practice, he concluded, the blasphemy law only works for the benefit of Muslims in Indonesia.

“There
are many Christian lawyers,” one such lawyer confirmed to Compass on
condition of anonymity, “but many don’t defend Christians out of fear,
because they know it’s a Muslim country.”

While not all
Muslims support the hardliners’ agenda, a September 2010 survey by the
Center for the Study of Islam and Society found that among 1,200
randomly sampled Muslim men and women, 57 percent were against the
construction of church buildings and other non-Muslim places of worship –
the highest rate the center has recorded since 2001.

With its history of Pancasila,
Indonesia is still generally considered a moderately Islamic country
even as radical elements gain force, and one source said the blasphemy
law would be invoked more often were it not for a general sense that the
courts and officials are corrupt and/or ineffective. Some observers
believe groups like the FPI and the Bekasi Islamic Presidium have gained
momentum by protecting and promoting Islamic interests in a way that
government officials will not.

Furthermore, the blasphemy laws are not often invoked due to a general impression that prisons are full enough.

“Everyone
knows that our prisons are overflowing,” the anonymous source said.
“Why put more people into these prisons with longer sentences? That’s
why a murderer can sometimes get away with a sentence of less than 10
years, and get out on parole after six years on good behavior.”

Interestingly,
while the Christians found guilty under Article 156(A) were sentenced
to five years and one year, Muslims who displayed “enmity” were
generally charged with misdemeanors and sentenced to six or seven months
despite causing physical harm.

Blasphemy Laws Upheld
In
October 2009, the Advocacy Alliance for Freedom of Religion, a
coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations and activists, asked
Indonesia’s Constitutional Court to review and repeal the 1965 Blasphemy
Law and Article 156(A) of the penal code, citing violations of the
constitutional rights of freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

FPI
members staged loud demonstrations outside the hearing, while
extremists inside the courtroom shouted insults at speakers arguing for
the repeal, the Jakarta Globe reported. Although regarded as
moderate, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s two largest
Muslim organizations, also opposed the review, as did Religious Affairs
Minister Surhadharma Ali, who insisted that the law was needed to
“maintain social harmony and prevent an explosion of new religions,”
according to the Globe.

Ali in fact met with
leaders of the FPI and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia – an organization
supporting global Islamic rule – in February 2010 to discuss concerns
about the review, according to The Jakarta Post.

The court upheld both laws in April 2010, echoing Ali’s claims that the laws were necessary to maintain public order.

Following the violence in February, however, Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) Deputy Chairman Choirul Anam told the Jakarta Globe that
HRWG would appeal for a second review on the grounds that “attacks on
religious minorities have increased and continue to rise.” He also
pointed out that some judges had referred to the Quran during the
hearing, proving unacceptable bias in a secular court.

“The
next step will be to push the government and the legislature to draft a
law on religious freedom, not religious harmony as has been discussed
until now,” Anam said.

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