The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, March 22, 2010


Confronting blasphemy Duncan Graham

Indonesia normally makes international news only for terrorist attacks and disasters like landslips, ferry capsizes and aircraft crashes.

Reporting these tragedies tends to eclipse other significant but less startling issues underway in the world’s most populous Islamic country and third largest democracy.

A judicial review now underway has the potential to make this country of 240 million a more liberal society.

Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law is being challenged in the nation’s Constitution Court by Muslim liberals, backed by Protestants and Catholics, under the rubric of the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Faith. They claim the legislation is at odds with the Constitution that allows freedom of religion.

The reality is different. Indonesian citizens have to carry ID cards that include the holder’s religion. This must be one of six religions approved by the government – Islam, Catholicism, ‘Christian’ (meaning Protestant), Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Those with no religion or who follow another faith you are listed as Muslim by default. Visitor guides warn atheists not to disclose their views in any discussion with locals. Questioning a stranger about their religion is standard in even the most casual encounters.

The Blasphemy Law, passed in 1965, was allegedly designed to keep hotheads under control in a country where religious slurs can rapidly lead to violence, and it’s no dead letter. Here’s one example:

Last year in an East Java jail I met and tried to interview a group of 11 Protestants imprisoned for blasphemy.

The room was crowded, noisy and stiflingly hot. There was no furniture. Visitors had to squat on the floor at the feet of the standing guards.

No surprisingly the chat was not a great success. The nervous few who did agree to talk were reluctant to comment on their situation except in whispers.

That wasn’t the situation outside. Mainstream Christian leaders were keen to denounce the prisoners and staged a major public event to fulsomely apologise for their colleagues’ faults.

Stupidity would have been a better term. The men who’d been arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to four years had been in a training seminar organised by the Indonesian Student Ministry, also known as Campus Crusade.

This organisation has been running for 50 years, though before this event it was barely known outside the Protestant churches and Christian universities. But this time they made a DVD of their activities. This fell into the hands of a Muslim leader Muhammad Nidzhom Hidayatullah.Nidzhom was the executive secretary of the local branch of the peak Islamic body Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), the Indonesian Muslim Scholars' Council.
The 10-minute video showed about 40 people in a room, most dressed in traditional Muslim clothes – the women wearing headscarves, the men in sarongs and rimless caps. At the front a preacher waved a book that appeared to be a copy of the Koran.At one stage in the proceedings the book was put on the floor. In a grainy and shakily-shot scene the participants formed a ring and condemned the text with angry words and gestures.

Nidzhom is a moderate. Instead of using the video to trigger mob violence he discussed the issue with colleagues and local Protestant leaders, including
Pastor Johan Haryono.

"They (Campus Crusade) have walked too far, gone beyond the boundaries, been too emotional,” said Pastor Haryono."To be an evangelist is to love, but they are committing blasphemy against the Koran. That is evil. I have no idea why they did this."The tragedy is that we've lost the trust of Muslims and this must be retrieved. We have to improve our internal networking so this doesn't happen again."We are grateful to all the Muslim leaders. What they did was very good. They kept the balance." Despite this the police prosecuted and the courts convicted.

But the Blasphemy Law hasn’t just been used against insensitive fringe groups attacking other faiths. In the last two years fundamentalist Muslims calling themselves the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) and claiming to be defenders of the law have been targeting Ahmadiyah. This is an Islamic sect that says Mohammed was not the last prophet.

Ahmadiyah mosques have been firebombed and worshipers assaulted. At one stage they were considering fleeing to Australia to seek asylum from religious persecution.

The present challenge to the legislation was triggered by these attacks, and FPI members violently ambushing a peaceful rally of liberals in central Jakarta. The legal action is being opposed by the Religious Affairs Ministry, which claims any change in the law will create chaos.

Also hostile are radical Islamic groups including the FPI, which has attempted to disrupt hearings. They say dumping the law will lead to Indonesia becoming a secular nation led by ‘neo-liberals’.

Despite some well-reasoned arguments there seems to be little chance that the law will be changed. Although those pushing for a judicial review have mustered an impressive list of authorities, they’ve lost their principal backer, the former president Abdurrahman Wahid, also known as Gus Dur.

A leading Islamic scholar and one-time head of the 40-million strong Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, Gus Dur was a noted liberal and supporter of pluralism. He died last December after being sick for many years.

Even if the Blasphemy Law was dumped or modified its unlikely that this would have an immediate impact on society. There’s a long history of individuals ignoring laws they don’t like, and that includes public servants.

The addition of Confucianism to the list of Indonesia’s approved religions only occurred in 2000 when Gus Dur was president. But ethnic Chinese complain that local officials still refuse to acknowledge the change.

(First published in On Line Opinion Monday 22 March 2010)