Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Indonesia's courts have opened the door to fear and religious extremism

Andreas Harsono

Governor Basuki T. Purnama attended a discussion with people with disabilities in a government shelter in Jakarta in March 2017. Purnama helped set up these shelters. ©Yeni Rosa Damayanti

The Jakarta court that sentenced governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama to two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy against Islam has sent a chilling message to non-Muslims in Indonesia. How could religious freedom slowly decline in Indonesia? And how could political Islam shape the country?

Ahok, himself a Christian, is the biggest political figure to be victimised under the blasphemy law. He is not only the Jakarta governor, backed by Indonesia’s biggest political party, but he’s also an ally of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Ahok and Jokowi were the dream team: Jokowi with vision, Ahok doing daily management.

Ahok’s imprisonment is a big blow for the president. He too might expect to be called infidel, kafir – a term used by Islamists to describe their fellow Muslim opponents.

Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy has created space for more freedom of expression for all Indonesians, including Islamists. Emboldened by the government’s inaction on discrimination and violence against religious minorities, over the last 19 years Islamists have increasingly sought to enforce laws like the blasphemy law more strictly to “protect” Islam and move Indonesia from a secular to an Islamic state.

Indonesia’s 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But in January 1965, then-President Sukarno issued a presidential decree that prohibited individuals from being hostile toward other religions. Sukarno decreed that Indonesia was to protect six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Sukarno never used that law. He lost power in October 1965.

General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1965 to 1998, used the blasphemy law only a handful of times. Three of his successors – B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri—never used it.

The law only became an issue when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono succeeded Megawati in 2004. Yudhoyono strengthened the blasphemy law offices, which were under the Attorney General’s Office, by creating branches in every province and regency. He also took no action against emerging Islamist militant groups that engage in threats and violence against religious minorities. During his decade in power, Yudhoyono’s administration sent at least 106 blasphemy individual cases to courts – and all were found guilty.

In March 2006, Yudhoyono decreed a “religious harmony” regulation and set up government advisory bodies, skillfully named the Religious Harmony Forum, in every province and regency. The forum’s credo says, “The majority should protect the minorities and the minorities should respect the majority.” But it basically denies equal rights to Indonesian citizens. In many Muslim-majority areas, the credo allows Muslims to have effective veto power over the activities of religious minorities. More than 1,000 churches were closed down in that decade.

In 2014, Jokowi succeeded Yudhoyono. Many opinion makers and moderate Muslim leaders advised Jokowi to undo the discriminatory infrastructure he had inherited from Yudhoyono.

Unfortunately, Jokowi declined to take those steps. He instead sought to foster better ties with moderate Muslim groups such as the nationwide Nahdlatul Ulama in the hope that it would strengthen his hand with the hardline Islamist groups. He clearly miscalculated.

The Ahok verdict endorsed an Islamist narrative of blasphemy. One of the five judges, reciting the Qur’an’s Al-Maidah 51 verse in Arabic, stressed that Muslims should not elect non-Muslim leaders. The court also adopted the Islamist’s position that non-Muslims should not comment on Qur’anic interpretations.

The verdict paints a frightening future for moderate Muslims and non-Muslims who believe in Indonesia’s pluralist society. Non-Muslims will think twice before making comments in public or on social media about diversity and pluralism. Beyond elected officials, public servants and executives of state-owned companies may be next in line.

Will it be OK to talk about opening a food vendor during the Ramadan fasting month? Will it be lawful to discuss mandatory wearing of the hijab? Non-Muslims might risk prison time just by venturing into these very ordinary subjects of Indonesian life.

If someone powerful and once popular like Ahok could be jailed for blasphemy, who is next?

Andreas Harsono is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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