Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is criminalizing hate speech the way to go?


Despite various efforts deployed to counter terrorism, violent radicalization remains a major challenge for Indonesia. The country is witnessing an unprecedented surge in the number of citizens departing to foreign countries to fight for terrorist groups. Earlier this year, the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) estimated that at least 500 Indonesians had left for Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) movement. Although IS is currently the center of attention, the militant organization, Jamaah Islamiyah, is reportedly regenerating with systematic recruitment and training agendas.


Many have blamed growing radicalization on weak law enforcement and the lack of clear regulations to address hate speech in the country, although obviously this is not the only factor.Former BNPT chief Ansyaad Mbai has expressed concern about the weak legal framework. Currently, the only legislation to address hate speech in Indonesia is Article 156 of the Criminal Code on spreading hate, which stipulates imprisonment for up to four years for “anyone who publicly expresses enmity, hatred or insults against one group or some groups of Indonesians”.


However, this article does not make a clear distinction between valid criticisms and hate speech; and it only criminalizes narratives against Indonesians. Thus, it does not address the common rhetoric against Westerners or Shia Muslims in Iraq, a narrative often used to recruit Indonesian fighters.Several figures and hard-line organizations are widely known to deliver hate speech in Indonesia.


The cleric, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, is known for his sermons in mosques, which boldly stated that “God has divided humanity into […] the followers of God and those who follow Satan.”He defines God’s followers as people who follow God’s law and fight for the implementation of sharia law, and Satan’s followers as those who create obstacles to such efforts. Ba’asyir also justified the 2002 Bali bombings and labeled Western tourists as “worms, snakes, maggots; animals that crawl” and encouraged young Muslims to “beat up” Westerners.


 Recently, through Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) chairman Mochammad Achwan, Ba’asyir called upon his followers to support IS. Former chairman of the Indonesian Mujahedeen Assembly, Irfan S. Awwas, is also known for such speeches. He stated that people should not have criticized the executed Bali bombers Imam Samudra and Amrozi, as they committed their actions based on their individual interpretation and judgment. Recently, local jihadi groups such as the Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia (HASI) have also been preaching on the importance of supporting IS.


The group has been portraying Shiites as deviants and associating them with Syria’s Assad regime, creating the impression that Sunni Muslims are victims of Shiite’s evil deeds. Besides preaching in public space, HASI also uses online media to publish articles and videos that demonize Shiites and encourages the audience to support IS. The Islam Defenders Front (FPI), despite their detachment from Salafism, has been actively proliferating hatred domestically. A video of FPI secretary-general Sorbi Lubis was widely circulated on the Internet, in which he was recorded as saying “[K]ill Ahmadiyah wherever they are […] Kill, kill, kill! If we do not kill Ahmadiyah […] we will not be halal [clean] anymore.”This speech reportedly contributed to mobilizing people to commit radical, violent actions against the minority group.


Obviously, an individual’s ideology will not be affected easily just by listening to hate speech. A reasonable person may see provocative videos by IS and not likely be persuaded to join the fight. Geopolitics and personal history play major roles in defining how an individual responds to hate speech. But those from poor families, with low education and an anti-Western bias may be more likely to be persuaded by the provocation. Influential hate speech is usually delivered by individuals who are considered respectful and charismatic, a la Abu Bakar Ba’asyir.


Audiences of certain mosques and boarding schools who are exposed to a constant stream of extreme ideas promoted by charismatic teachers and surrounded by others who believe likewise will be more swayed by hate speech. Many HASI members are former students of Ba’asyir’s Al-Mukmin boarding school.One challenge to addressing hate speech is the difficulty in defining what constitutes such action. A professor at Yale Law School, Robert Post, identified two issues to defining hate speech. He posed the questions; “when do […] otherwise appropriate emotions become so ‘extreme’ as to deserve legal suppression?” and “how do we distinguish hatred from ordinary dislike or disagreement?”Article 20 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that national law should prohibit any propaganda that proliferates hatred on the basis of nationality, race or religion if it constitutes “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. Arizona State University’s Center for Strategic Communication made a useful distinction between freedom of speech and religious hate speech by creating a four-point scale:


 (1) dialogue on religious differences;

(2) unilateral condemnation of others’ belief systems;

(3) dehumanization and demonization of certain groups with implicit message of violence; and

(4) explicit, provocative message of violence.


They argue that point (1) and (2) are considered valid criticism of other belief systems, while (3) and (4) are considered hate speech, as they encourage violence against certain groups. This categorization may be useful as a point of departure for the Indonesian government to differentiate hate speech from other forms of freedom of speech.


Hate speech is not an independent factor and it does not always result in the “radicalization” of an individual. However, it can be a strong shaper of one’s ideology and can foment radicalism when it interplays with other factors. Hate speech strengthens social categorization in the mind of the individual, bolstering a sense of an “us” and a “them”. In the authoritarian era of Soeharto, such speech would not have any room whatsoever.


Today, the Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration needs to combat hate speech without harming other forms of freedom of speech, although some trade-offs may be inevitable. Regulating hate speech will not automatically reduce exposure to the promotion of violence in Indonesia, but it will help take one variable out of the equation.


The writer Tiola Javadi, is a student research assistant in the the Indonesia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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