When Blasphemy Runs Amok
The world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, usually draws little attention in the West. However, this year major British, American, German, Japanese, Chinese and Indian media, amongst many others, have covered the wild race to be Governor of Jakarta, its capital.
The early frontrunner was Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, universally known as “Ahok.” He is ethnic Chinese in a society where anti-Chinese sentiment remains strong, and Christian in a country that is 88 percent Muslim. In addition, Ahok is currently on trial for blasphemy, and was moved daily from courtroom to campaign trail. This made the election a measure of how extremist Muslim sentiment is growing in this usually tolerant country.
In the campaign’s early days, Ahok had a large lead, and social media were replete with photographs of people holding signs declaring “I am a Muslim and I support Ahok.” However, in a speech last September he referred to the Qur’anic verse, al-Maidah 51, warning Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies, which he said was misused to claim that Muslims are forbidden to vote for non-Muslims.
A few days later, a deceptively edited video of his remarks went viral on the internet. In short order the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa saying that he had blasphemed. Then the radical, sometimes violent, Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) teamed up with the newly formed “National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa” to demand that Ahok be arrested. In November and December there were massive demonstrations and, on November 16, the police announced that he was officially suspected of blasphemy. He could be sentenced to five years in prison.
Ahok’s case amply illustrates the dangers of blasphemy accusations, and not only to those accused. Almost inevitably it has lead to a cascade of similar charges.
In rough justice, Buni Yani, who had posted the edited video of Ahok’s talk is being interrogated about inciting religious hatred, punishable with up to six years of imprisonment. One of Buni’s lawyers, Aldwin Rahardian, with no apparent sense of irony declared that “Buni feels this [case] is a form of criminalization.”
Next in line was Rizieq Shihab, leader of the FPI and a leading instigator of the demonstrations. He is being investigated for blasphemy after reports that he made denigrating remarks about the Holy Trinity. He is also being questioned concerning an alleged insult to the official State ideology of Pancasila. Not content with that, the police have also questioned Rizieq concerning insulting a dead person, which can be a criminal offence. In this case the dead person is Soekarno, Indonesia’s revered first President, and the complainant was Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, one of Soekarno’s daughters. Adding to the stew, Rezieq has also been summoned to answer accusations that he had insulted Indonesia’s currency by saying that new banknotes featured hammer and sickle symbols.
To complete his roster of investigations, at least so far, Rizieq may be charged under the Pornography Law after allegedly sending sexually explicit messages to Firza Husein via WhatsApp. Firza has also been arrested for treason because of her role as an organizer of the mass demonstrations. Police maintain that she and ten others planned to overthrow the government by holding demonstrations even after their demand that Ahok be tried had been met. One other suspect in the treason probe is Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, Sukmawati’s sister.
Elsewhere, police in Bali have charged FPI secretary-general Munarman with insulting the traditions of the island’s majority-Hindu population by defaming pecalang, traditional Balinese security guards. For its part, the FPI threatened to report Megawati Soekarnoputri to the police for insulting Islam by labelling them as “anti-diversity” and having a “closed ideology.” Megawati is yet another of Soekarno’s daughters and is one of the most powerful political figures in Indonesia, a former President of Indonesia, and an Ahok supporter.
This ongoing legal folderol leads to widespread suspicion that the police are simply using multiple vague accusations to keep troublesome people in line, since Rizieq faces possible charges for insulting the Trinity, Pancasila, a former President, and banknotes, not to mention pornography and consorting with a treason suspect.
Most of these cases do not involve blasphemy in any precise sense. Nor do similar cases in the Muslim world and the West. Blasphemy is usually understood as an insult to God rather than to a person, and most Western jurisdictions claim that their “hate speech” laws are not seeking to protect God or religion but to protect people from insult and harassment.
However, blasphemy laws throughout the world, including the West, are notoriously vague, and equally vague Western “hate speech” restrictions target unpopular religious views. Also, throughout the world, and connected with this vacuity, blasphemy restrictions, like other religious repression, do not lead to harmony but to increased religious tension and conflict. English comedian Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) noted years ago that instead they produce “a veneer of tolerance concealing a snake pit of unaired and unchallenged views.”
The final round of the election was held on April 19, and preliminary results show that Ahok lost, with only 40-44 percent of the vote. There is still some good news here: that a Chinese Christian on trial for blasphemy could gain that number of votes in a race to head the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country is encouraging. In Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt he would already be imprisoned, driven from the country, or dead.
But Indonesia’s social and political fabric has been stretched and in coming years may be torn apart, especially if the patterns of this election are repeated in national contests. People in the West should recognize that they are not immune to this danger and should decisively reject quasi blasphemy laws and accusations, and instead defend free speech, including obnoxious religious speech.
Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and Senior Fellow at the Leimena Institute, Jakarta, and at the Hudson Institute, Washington DC.
Photo Credit: Police in front of protests with flags for both Indonesia and Islamic groups. On November 4, 2016, in Jakarta, these groups protested against Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”). By AWG97, via Wikimedia Commons.