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Blasphemy case stokes fears of state capture by hard-liners

Politicization of religion to discriminate threatens to tear Indonesian society apart
Blasphemy case stokes fears of state capture by hard-liners

A worker inspects a loudspeaker at a mosque on the eve of the Islamic holy month Ramadan in Meulaboh town in Aceh province in this June 28, 2014 file photo. A Chinese Buddhist woman has been jailed for 18 months in North Sumatra for asking a neighbor why a local mosque loudspeaker cannot be turned down. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)

Published: August 27, 2018 09:08 AM GMT
Updated: August 27, 2018 09:09 AM GMT

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in his annual national address to the nation before Independence Day, urged the country to embrace its founding spirit of tolerance. Those who had fought for independence had not been able to triumph without throwing off differences of political, ethnic, religious, or class loyalties, he said.

Just five days later the Medan District Court in North Sumatra sentenced Meiliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist, to 18 months in jail for asking her neighbor in the town of Tanjungbalai why couldn't the mosque loudspeaker be turned down. That request led to rioting in which Buddhist and Confucian temples were damaged.

It was another three days later, on Aug. 24, when Widodo commented directly on the case, but he said only that Meiliana should appeal the sentence. He said he was following the principle of respecting the independence of the judiciary, a position also taken by his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In doing so, the two leaders have tolerated the slow and steady capture of the state by hard-line elements, just as the National Socialist Party took power by stealth in Germany in the 1930s. And while no-one expects hard-line Islam to formally take over power in today's Indonesia, it has established itself as a critical power base.

There has even been talk of Habib Rizieq Shihab, the self-exiled leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, a prominent hard-line group, joining Widodo's political coalition to fight the presidential election next April. With conservative Muslim leader Ma'ruf Amin, head of the Indonesian Ulemas Union (MUI), running on Widodo's electoral ticket as vice president, the addition of Shihab to the incumbent's team would dismiss any hopes of social reform in the world's most populous Muslim state.

If Widodo was circumspect in his comments, many others have criticized the Medan court ruling across the political spectrum. Vice President Jusuf Kalla, speaking as the head of the Indonesian Mosque Council, reminded the country that the council had long been calling for moderation by mosques in the use of loudspeakers. The public organized petitions on behalf of Meiliana, and the woman's lawyer promised an appeal.

Robikin Emhas, the head of the legal department of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organization, stated that he could see no blasphemy in her plea for a quieter life. Muhammadiyah, the second largest religious grouping, went further, calling for a review of blasphemy-related articles and laws, saying that many of the current provisions are vague and open to interpretation.

The liberalization of society that came with the end of the Suharto regime in 1998 paradoxically allowed the hard-line Muslim minority, who were forced underground by the former dictator, to grab a prominent place on the public stage. The existence of a number of tough laws on blasphemy has provided them with a convenient weapon to silence more liberal elements.

Meiliana, like former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was prosecuted under articles of the Criminal Code. Others have been subjected to the Blasphemy Law or the more recent Information and Electronic Transmission Law.

The Constitutional Court in 2009 rejected a plea to review the Blasphemy Law, stating that while the law needed revision to remove the threat of misinterpretation, that was the job of the parliament, not the court. The parliament, wary of any step that might appear to confront the hard-line agenda to control society, has not taken up the challenge.

Predictions in the wake of the sentencing of Purnama to two years in jail that more attacks on freedom of speech could be expected have now been confirmed. The hard-line groups will take any opportunity available to enforce their restrictive views on society by means of intimidation by the mob of police, prosecutors and judges to hand down stiff sentences for trivial affronts.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute, which campaigns for religious tolerance, agreed that the Meiliana case represents the result of what is effectively a process of state capture. Conservative Islam has been able to dictate public opinion to such a degree that the entire legal apparatus is pressured to apply the toughest strictures against allegations of blasphemy contained in the laws.

Leading figures from the NU, generally regarded as the champion of tolerant Islam, say that while they have been fighting the infiltration of Indonesian Islam by hard-liners for decades, they recognize that they are fighting a losing battle.

The government has taken some steps to protect the country's former reputation for tolerance, last year banning Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia for failing to acknowledge the country's Pancasila ideology. But the mass demonstrations in Jakarta at the end of 2016 against Purnama forced the government on the back foot, wary of unleashing the fiery rhetoric and the muscle of the fundamentalist Muslim masses.

The NU strives to propagate its vision of a humanitarian Islam, but its message has been blunted by political power games within the organization and in the wider Muslim community. Leaders of minority religions regularly turn out for public statements in defense of tolerance and unity, but are aware that they cannot be too outspoken due to the risk of attracting attacks from the hard-liners on their own communities.

The bombings of churches in Surabaya, the capital of East Java, in May were a shocking reminder that radicals continue to harbor hatred of minority religions, and now the Meiliana verdict has shown that just complaining about a noisy mosque loudspeaker can land you in jail. The fact that those involved in the riots in Tanjungbalai after the woman's complaint were sentenced to a maximum of only four months in jail is seen by many as compounding the injustice of her case.  

The Setara Institute noted earlier in August that incidents of religious intolerance are on the rise, stating that the politicization of faith is intensifying amid elections. However the apparent institutionalization of discrimination by the courts makes it likely that this is a deep-rooted trend, with the use of religious discrimination within the political arena merely the symptom of a more critical turn in Indonesian society that threatens the unity of the country.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst

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