Making sense of Indonesia's blasphemy law
The rise in blasphemy prosecutions in Indonesia could strike a major blow to the nation’s status as a model for tolerant Muslim democracy.
“It almost beggars belief … the blasphemy of these terrorists.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s condemnation of the recent suicide attacks on three churches in Indonesia’s second-largest city was echoed by many world leaders.
But the issue of blasphemy has been front-and-centre in Indonesia for an entirely different reason.
In recent years, a spate of prosecutions under the controversial blasphemy law has gripped the Muslim-majority country.
When former Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama was convicted in a high-profile blasphemy case in May 2017, the United Nations called on the government to repeal the law, labelling it “an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression”. But Indonesia has rejected such calls.
All but a handful of the 89 blasphemy convictions handed down since the demise of President Soeharto in 1998 have been for blaspheming Islam.
And commentators have suggested that the issue, and the simultaneous rise in religious intolerance in Indonesia, seriously threatens its increasingly shaky status as a model for Islamic democracy.
The Ahok case
The Christian and ethnically Chinese Ahok became Jakarta’s governor by default in 2014, when his predecessor Joko Widodo was elected as Indonesia’s President.
While visiting a fishing community off the coast of Jakarta, Ahok made an off-the-cuff remark about Muslim politicians using a Qur’anic verse to justify the claim that Muslims should not elect a Christian.
He was charged with blasphemy after a series of protests and complaints, which included the issuance of a religious edict by the powerful Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), and lost the governor’s election. A month later he became the first politician to be convicted and jailed under the law.
But was there a whiff of anti-Chinese, anti-Christian sentiment in the campaign against Ahok?
Daniel Peterson, an Indonesia expert from ACU’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, believes there was.
“Ahok was simply speaking out against the bigotry he had faced as a double-minority politician, and the radical Islamist fringe saw that as an opportunity to remove not only the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta, but also to attack his political ally, President Jokowi,” said Peterson, whose research focuses on the rise of political Islam in Indonesia.
“Ahok did issue an apology saying he never intended to cause offence, but he also vehemently defended his position and maintained he hadn’t blasphemed. And that response was exactly what people had objected to, that this ethnic Chinese-Christian was so blunt and so forthright in defending himself against his detractors.”
Sukmawati’s ‘saving grace’
I don’t know Islamic shari’a. What I do know is that the sari konde (a traditional Javanese women’s hairstyle) of Mother Indonesia is beautiful. More beautiful than your niqab … the sound of Mother Indonesia’s ballad is beautiful. More dulcet than your adzan (call to prayer) …
To most Australian eyes and ears, the above verses from a poem written by Sukmawati Soekarnoputri — daughter of the nation’s first president — would seem fairly innocuous.
But when she recited the poem at Indonesian Fashion Week in late March 2018, hard-line Islamic groups accused her of defaming Islam and sought to invoke the same law that saw Ahok jailed. Fears that Sukmawati would suffer a similar fate, however, were short-lived.
Less than a week after the fashion show, she held a press conference where she apologised “to all Muslims who feel offended by this poem”.
And Daniel Peterson believes that tearful apology may have been her “saving grace”.
If Ahok was the blueprint for blasphemy cases, the fear was that if a case was brought against Sukmawati, whose sister Megawati chairs the political party backing President Jokowi, it could be a sign of things to come in the lead up to the 2019 election … that the hard-line groups would continue to go after people connected with politicians,” Peterson said.
“What we saw instead was an unreserved apology from Sukmawati, and she was essentially forgiven because of that apology. But it must be said that her political pedigree, the fact that she's an indigenous Indonesian and the daughter of Indonesia's first president, that all definitely worked in her favour.”
Democracy in peril
For a nation that was once labelled “Islam with a friendly face” by the news media, the rise in religious intolerance in Indonesia has been a cause for concern amongst human rights groups and scholars.
Nearly 90 per cent of Indonesians identify as Muslim, but it recognises five other religions, has a secular government and has long been praised as a model for inclusive Islamic democracy.
In his 2016 Lowy lecture, Prime Minister Turnbull said he had a “deep and personal appreciation of President Joko Widodo’s commitment to promoting a tolerant and inclusive Islam”.
"He says again and again, Indonesia is proof that democracy, tolerance, moderation and Islam are compatible,” the Prime Minister said.
But as the suicide bombings in Surubaya show, President Widodo now has a significant challenge in overcoming the growing problem of homegrown terrorism.
The Director of ACU’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, Dr Joshua Roose, said Islamic State continues to enjoy a sizeable level of support among everyday Indonesians.
He pointed to a Pew Research study which found that 4 per cent of Indonesians have a favourable opinion of the extremist group.
“[That] may seem small, but in numerical terms [it] constitutes over 9 million people … [and] as Indonesian society has slowly become more conservative in recent years, this support is sure to grow,” Dr Roose said.
Concerns about declining pluralism and tolerance in Indonesia are not new.
As far back as 2010, the Indonesian Constitutional Court’s decision to uphold the blasphemy law was seen as a signal that religious populism was taking hold.
“In that judgement, the court said that Indonesia maintains public order by prioritising the religious sensibilities of the majority over the fundamental human rights of minorities,” Peterson said. “How do we define what the religious sensibilities of the majority are? We go to the religious parent organisation, the Indonesian Council of Ulema, and how it defines Islamic orthodoxy.
“The fact that you have the Constitutional Court endorsing religious authoritarianism is inherently illiberal and undemocratic, and the literature on state repression of religious expression suggests that it does, in fact, portend the type of religious extremism we’ve seen in Surabaya.”
Peterson said the concerns over rising intolerance and the recent blasphemy cases were warranted.
“What we’ve seen in recent years is that conservative brands of Islam have an increased legitimacy in the eyes of many Indonesians,” he said.
“So while Indonesia still harbours more hope for a tolerant Muslim-majority democracy than almost anywhere else in the world, given recent events, I think there is ample evidence that there is just cause for concern.”
Daniel Peterson is a PhD candidate at ACU’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, and an associate at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Indonesian Islam, Law and Society. His research focuses on the rise of political Islam in contemporary Indonesia.