Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Taking the Decisive Step Against Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law

For the first time since its creation in 1965, Indonesia’s controversial law against “blasphemy” (Law No.1/PNPS/1965 on the “Prevention of Misuse or Blasphemation of Religion”) faces a legal challenge at the Constitutional Courts. Initiating the request for a review was the “National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Faith” or AKKBB, an umbrella group comprising the Wahid Institute (named after late former President Abdurrahman Wahid), the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, and many smaller NGOs. A number of prominent Muslims have also backed the petition. Among them are noted scholar Dawam Rahardjo, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, Director of the Liberal Islam Movement, and Ahmad Syafi’i Ma’arif, former chairman of the Muhammadiyah.

The petitioners argue that the Blasphemy Law contravenes the country’s state doctrine Pancasila and the constitution of 1945, which both guaranteed freedom of religion. In a document signed by 300 community leaders (among them the figurehead of the 1998 reform movement Amien Rais, spiritual activist Anand Krishna, noted academic Azyumardi Azra, and the founder of Tempo journal Goenawan Mohamad), it was expressed:

“Indonesia guarantees religious freedom to all its citizens. It is a human right guaranteed by the constitution. It is also the core of ‘Unity in Diversity’ which is the fundament of our Indonesian-ness.” (‘Unity in Diversity’ or Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is the motto connected to the Pancasila). Choirul Anam, the legal counsel for the petitioners, said last week, “Our constitution guarantees religious freedom. All religious groups deserve equal treatment. Therefore, this law, which gives the government the power to intervene in religious matters, must be annulled.”

Often described as a country with a secular ideology, Indonesia’s constitution and laws are in fact highly ambiguous and selective on the question of religious freedom. The Pancasila merely acknowledges six “official” religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Overall, there are two categories of laws and regulations: Those in favour of religious freedom and others that put up restrictions on this freedom and which discriminate against particular interpretations of religion.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom in various sections, as in Paragraph 29 on “religion” and in the First and Second Article of Paragraph 28. The second part of paragraph 29 holds: “The state guarantees the freedom of every citizen to follow his/her religion and to worship in accordance with his/her religion and belief.” The First Article of paragraph 28 reads: Every citizen has the right to follow the religion and worship according to his/her beliefs…” Paragraph 28 I (1) reaffirms the previous points, reading: “The right to live, the right not to be maltreated, the right to free thought…, the right to practise religion, … is a human right that cannot be reduced under any circumstance”. Paragraph 28 I (4), then, defines the government’s responsibility as: “The protection, progress, implementation, and fulfillment of human rights are the responsibility of the state, in particular the government.

But other laws qualify those sections. The most important is the Blasphemy Law. Its first paragraph reads: “Every person is prohibited from deliberately speaking about, recommending, or lending support to interpretations of a religion that is adhered to in Indonesia [i.e. Indonesian religions], or participating in religious activities that are similar to those of a religion, interpretations and activities, which deviate from the central teachings of that religion.” With this wording, any religious belief can come under attack if a group sees its human right of exercising its religion disturbed by the existence of some other religion or belief.

As a result, the law renders authority to the state to determine what the proper key aspects of a religion are, and which ones are not. Syncretist and non-conformist groups such as Ahmadiyah or the Lia Eden sect are two leading examples of communities that are discriminated against because parts of their teachings are seen as disobeying ‘official’ Islamic doctrine. Followers of these groups have been persecuted in areas such as Bogor and Sukabumi in West Java or on the Island of Lombok, and their places of worship attacked. In 2009, the Central Jakarta District Court convicted Lia Eden (also known as Lia Aminuddin) of blasphemy and sentenced her to two years and six months in prison (the maximum penalty is five years imprisonment). The government’s 2009 decree issued against activities of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect is basically a reiteration of the wording of the blasphemy law.

Supporters of the blasphemy law follow the particular logic that mainstream Muslims are threatened by non-conformist interpretations of Islam and that the law was vital to forestall “anarchic activities” by local Muslims. This view is often shared by government officials who see more at stake when it comes to issues involving Islam as compared to other religions. While there has been support from various liberal Muslim leaders for a review of the blasphemy law, most Muslim organizations remain opposed. Minister of Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali, has flatly rejected a review. Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsudin held that because a majority of Muslims felt distressed by the existence of “heretical” groups, the blasphemy law had nothing to do with religious freedom. Nahdladul Ulama chairman Hasyim Muzadi said the petitioners of the review should be grateful that the law has provided the government with authority to prevent disturbances arising from blasphemous activities. By doing so, these Muslims leaders argue in favour of taking pre-emptive actions against the victims rather than the aggressors.

Hence, pending a review of the Blasphemy Law, the Indonesian constitution offers relative rather than absolute guarantees of religious freedom. The blasphemy law empowers the state to outlaw unorthodox interpretations of the religions acknowledged by Pancasila. With Muslims making for the vast majority of Indonesians, this, in fact, merely concerns interpretations of Islam. The trial, which began last month, is thought to take many months before a verdict can be expected. By BernhardPlatzdasch visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore.

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