Hardline Muslims react to the verdict in Basuki "Ahok" Purnama's blasphemy trial outside the court in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Hardline Muslims react to the verdict in Basuki "Ahok" Purnama's blasphemy trial outside the court in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Moderate Muslim leaders and human rights groups have renewed calls to scrap Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law following last week’s conviction and imprisonment of ethnic-Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama for his controversial reference to a verse in the Koran.

The growing use of the law, enshrined in Indonesia’s Criminal Code, inhibits free speech and has marginalized Christians, minority sect Muslims and other groups in a country whose secular Constitution clearly protects religious freedom.

This week’s influential Tempo magazine, in an editorial claiming the Pernama verdict has badly damaged the country’s reputation as a democratic, moderate and tolerant nation, asks provocatively: “One worrying question that emerges is whether Indonesia is turning into a theocracy.”

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is seen inside a court during his trial for blasphemy in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/ Sigid Kurniawan/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION HAS BEEN PROVIDED SEPARATELY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTS15RJN
Divisive decision: former Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama during his blasphemy trial in the Indonesian capital on May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters

It’s a question worth asking amid a rising trend of religious intolerance. Analysts such as University of Melbourne scholar Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir believe political elites are playing with fire by increasingly exploiting religious sentiments and racism ahead of the 2019 legislative and presidential elections.

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A protest on Saturday against a visit to Christian-dominated North Sulawesi by deputy parliamentary speaker Fahri Hamzah, a member of the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), showed the potential for widening polarization on religious lines. 

On May 9, a Jakarta court sentenced Purnama to two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy, despite prosecutors reducing the charge to hate speech the day after the incumbent governor’s resounding defeat in the gubernatorial election’s run-off.

Supporters of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly called Ahok, stage a protest outside Cipinang Prison, where he was taken following his conviction of blasphemy, in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. The sign reads "Ahok is not guilty". REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RTS15SMG
Minority vote: supporters of Basuki Purnama protest outside the prison where he was taken after his blasphemy conviction. Photo: Reuters

That alone would appear to be promising grounds for an appeal. But the court’s surprise decision to order Purnama’s immediate arrest means he will remain in jail during the appeal process and unable to serve out his remaining six months in office.

There was no dissenting opinion among the five judges, not all of whom were Muslim. Tempo’s op-ed said: “No question the blasphemy article was used as a political tool. The poorly defined article can be used by anyone to throw a person in jail who dares question religious definitions.”

Most analysts blame Purnama’s surprisingly heavy election loss on the four-month trial and a coordinated campaign by Islamic hardliners and self-serving politicians determined to prevent the election of Jakarta’s first Christian governor.

Purnama assumed the post in 2014 after then governor Joko Widodo went on to win the Indonesian presidency in a close contest with Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) leader Prabowo Subianto, who had ironically supported the pair in the 2012 gubernatorial race.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian running for re-election. The sign reads: "Reject Ahok." Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Hardline Muslim groups protest against governor Basuki Purnama. The sign reads: “Reject Ahok.” Photo: Reuters

The blasphemy law was used only eight times up until the end of former authoritarian president Suharto’s 32-year rule in 1998. But the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace lists 89 blasphemy cases since then – all of them during the 2004-2014 tenure of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono puts the number higher at 106 as the Yudhoyono administration inexplicably expanded the Attorney-General Office’s blasphemy law offices across the country.

He points to Yudhoyono’s 2006 creation of a so-called “religious harmony forum” under which “the majority should protect the minority and the minorities should respect the majority.”

In a country where the Muslim majority – 88% of the 260 million-strong archipelago’s population – often acts like a minority, there was only one way that was going to turn out with an estimated 1,000 Christian churches closed during the next decade.

In addition to notoriously intolerant religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali, one of Yudhoyono’s key advisers was Ma’ruf Amin, the director of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), which issued edicts against secularism, pluralism and liberalism.

An Acehnese woman gets whipped for spending time in close proximity with a man who is not her husband, which is against Sharia law in the city of Jantho, Aceh province on March 10, 2017. Indonesia's only province to impose sharia law caned Buddhists for the first time, after two men accused of cockfighting opted for punishment under the strict Islamic regulations. / AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN
Rule by stick: an Acehnese woman is whipped for spending time close to a man who is not her husband, a violation of Sharia law in Aceh province, on March 10, 2017. Photo: AFP

The council also threw its support behind a highly inflammatory 2008 fatwa banning the propagation of Ahmadiyah teachings that played no small part in the violence that followed against the tiny Islamic sect.

In turning MUI into a quasi-state institution, Yudhoyono effectively handed control of religion and its impact on public life to a conservative lobby that went on to demonstrate its dislike of the trappings of secular Indonesia, including an edict against celebrating Valentine’s Day.

All convicted without exception, most of the blasphemy victims have been adherents of minority religions, including Shi’a and Gafatar, a tiny Kalimantan community whose three leaders were given harsh five-year jail terms for blasphemy last March.

The 2,000-strong Gafatar have been the target of repression for practicing so-called “deviant teachings” which combine Islam with Christian and Jewish beliefs – something even moderate mainstream Muslims find hard to accept. They were charged in part because they did not consider prayer obligatory, as emphasized in the Koran.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY INDONESIA-RELIGION-RIGHTS-ISLAM-AHMADIYAH, FOCUS BY ARLINA ARSHADThis picture taken on April 9, 2013 shows cleric of the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, Rahmat Rahmadijaya, speaking through a door during an AFP interview at Al Misbah mosque in Bekasi. A group of minority Ahmadiyah Muslims in Indonesia have been holed up in a mosque since authorities shuttered it earlier this month, in a stand-off that starkly illustrates the growing religious intolerance sweeping the country. AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY / AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY
Under threat: a cleric of the minority Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, Rahmat Rahmadijaya, speaking through a door at the Al Misbah mosque in Bekasi, Indonesia Photo: AFP

Other blasphemy victims have included Sufi, one of whose followers died recently in Medan Prison, and defendants as diverse as a declared atheist and a Muslim teacher who used the Malay rather than Arabic language for the Shahadah, an Islamic creed.

Most of the blasphemy cases have been brought in Aceh, the only province permitted to practise Sharia law, and in West Sumatra, West Java and Madura, where Islamists, politicians and police have joined forces to target minorities in the name of maintaining public order.

In Aceh, Muslim lecturer Rosnida Sari was forced to flee the province after being threatened by fellow lecturers and clerics for inviting her students to hold a dialogue in a Catholic church to improve religious understanding.

Another prominent case, highlighted by Amnesty International, was that of Tajul Muluk, a Shi’a Muslim leader from East Java, who was jailed for four years in 2012 after Sunni clerics called his teachings “deviant” and mobs drove his followers from their homes.

President Widodo has done little to reverse the discriminatory policies and practices. Instead, he has sought the help of the two mass Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, to counter the rise of the conservative lobby.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures in an interview at the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside
Tacit endorsement: Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures in an interview at the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters

That has clearly failed, in large part because neither of the two organizations have widely respected leaders of the caliber of the late Nurholish Majid and ex-president Abdurrahman Wahid, who led the campaign for a democratic Islam.

After the Purnama verdict, Hidayat Nur Wahid, the speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly, Indonesia’s highest law-making body, said repealing the blasphemy law could spark a revival of communism – a bogeyman still used to influence public opinion.

A former PKS chairman, Wahid may have been firing a shot across the bows of Widodo, who had to fight off rumors during the 2014 presidential campaign that his parents were members of the murderously purged Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

Aides fear those same rumors may surface again when Widodo seeks a second term in 2019 in what is shaping into another tight race with opposition leader Prabowo, who supported on the winds of intolerance winning Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Anies Baswaden and now feels emboldened to run again.

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