Blasphemy law, a shackle to the Indonesian people
Tobias Basuki, Jakarta
Indonesia, the third-largest democracy in the world, may be facing gloomy days ahead. In December 2009, the late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid led a coalition of civil society organizations in filing a judicial review against the archaic blasphemy law (PNPS No. 1/1965). A move to abolish this problematic law would expectedly further consolidate Indonesia’s democracy, freedom and harmony.
Unfortunately there is strong resistance from the government and several religious and social groups against this move. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar officially rejected this judicial review.
On Feb. 4, Suryadharma Ali met with leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) to talk about the judicial review.
This is an unbelievably disappointing move by a government official of his stature.
The FPI is a militant organization and the HTI is a global organization whose aim is to combine all Muslim countries into a unitary Islamic state or caliphate. The HTI is an organization that is even banned and proscribed in many Arab and Islamic countries.
The FPI, and particularly the HTI, should not have a say on matters of the Indonesian people. The HTI does not represent the interests of the Indonesian people and our nation.
The argument proposed by defenders of this blasphemy law, is that the law is meant to maintain harmony and peace among religions. Forgive me for saying this: “It is complete baloney!”
This PNPS No. 1/1965 has been the ground on which the Criminal Code (KUHP), article 156a, rests. This KUHP, instead of maintaining peace and harmony, has been the umbrella under which various militant groups attack, burn and destroy others.
A recent example is the case of Welhelmina Holle in Masohi, Central Maluku, in December 2008. There were accusations and rumors that Holle, an elementary school teacher, had been offensive about a religion in one of his lectures in class.
As a result, a mob ran amok and destroyed 67 houses, a house of worship, and a community building. Hole was put on trial under the pretext of that law.
It is the existence of the blasphemy law that ignites conflict. It does not maintain harmony and peace.
The blasphemy law is just problematic on so many levels. Ironically it appears that many support it.
Newspaper reports regarding the blasphemy law may seem to picture a widespread rejection to the judicial review. But it is important to take this with a grain of salt. Opposition to the judicial review is only proclaimed by heads of institutions and a mob of “radical” groups with loud voices.
Most Indonesians are perhaps rather oblivious or rather ignorant regarding the case. Considering it is not on the headlines and the complicity of jargons used in the case.
However, we can be sure if explained properly, the public will want the abolition of the blasphemy law.
Not only is this law problematic sociologically as illustrated above. It is in direct contradiction to our Constitution.
Indonesia is a unitary state. The highest law of the land is the Constitution (UUD 1945), and all the laws under it should be in line with the Constitution.
On the same token all the lower laws of the land should also not contradict each other.
An important point to note is: our Constitution protects religious freedom to its citizens as individuals, not the freedom for religious groups to bash on others.
Article 28E on freedom of religion clearly states that each person/human/citizen has the right to choose and believe according to their conscience.
In 2008, Indonesia ratified an International Convention on discrimination and passed a law to abolish Racial and Ethnic Discrimination (UU PDRE).
This law rules that no one can be discriminated based on their beliefs, values or rituals that belongs to their group (articles 3, 4).
In short, the antiquated blasphemy law is no longer needed. It violates the Constitution and is also in contradiction to a law of equal stature (UU PDRE).
In 2007, Hudson Institute published a comprehensive study on freedom of religion around the world. The study ranked countries in the same manner as Freedom House’s rankings. A country is ranked from 1 to 7, 1 being most free and 7 not free or repressed. Indonesia was ranked at 5 (partly free).
A surprise and disappointment, particularly considering Malaysia was ranked at 4. At that time I did not agree with the classification given by Hudson Institute.
Regardless of the various horizontal conflicts (cited by Hudson as reason for the low ranking of Indonesia), it did not make sense that Indonesia is less free in terms of religious freedom compared to Malaysia.
But today, I think Hudson Institute was accurate after all.
Although the blasphemy law case has not hit headlines in local newspapers, the International Community observes us closely. For example, the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty has submitted an amicus brief in support of the judicial review to the Constitutional Court.
The deterioration or progress of freedom in Indonesia is important not only to Indonesians but also to the world.
We do not and should no longer live in the Dark Ages where blasphemy laws, inquisitions and burning of heretics are part of society. Indonesia is a religious country based on harmony, peace, multiculturalism and acceptance of differences.
It is important for our leaders to realize that without religious freedom, Indonesia cannot move forward.
Many academic studies show the strong correlation between economic growth and religious freedom. The works of Ilan Alon and Gregory Chase “Religious Freedom and Economic Prosperity” and the extensive studies of Grim and Finke are only a tip of the iceberg of evidences showing that religious freedom is important for a country’s growth and prosperity.
The decision by the Constitutional Court under Mahfud M.D. will be an immensely important one regarding the future of the nation. It will be a very tough decision, considering the amount of political and organizational pressure on the Constitutional Court.
It should have the courage to make a decision based on what is right, rather than submit to pressure. After all Malcolm Muggeridge once said: “only dead fish swim with the current!”
The writer, an alumnus from Northern Illinois University, Department of Political Science, is Director of Research and Studies at Institut Leimena.