Religious leader protection bill sparks debate in Indonesia

Critics say it’s politically motivated and nobody is beyond criticism
Religious leader protection bill sparks debate in Indonesia

Thousands of Muslims protest in 2016 at the Istiqlal Mosque in central Jakarta to demand the jailing of the city’s former Basuki Tjahja Purnama or Ahok. Indonesia’s Islamic parties are proposing new legislation to protect religious leaders. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/ucanews)

Indonesia's Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has succeeded in pushing a bill on the Protection of Religious Leaders and Religious Symbols.

Earlier this month, it was included on a list of 50 priority bills to be discussed next year.

Two other Islamic-based parties in the government coalition, the United Development Party and the National Awakening Party, are supporting the bill.

Almuzzammil Yusuf, a PKS politician and member of the People's Representative Council, Indonesia's equivalent of a House of Representatives, says the bill is aimed at "preventing and deterring the intimidation, and persecution of ulemas and religious figures."

"With this law, we hope that there will be no more criminalizing of religious leaders who give speeches in accordance with the teachings of their religion," he said.

Yusuf said that "religious leaders" in the proposed legislation meant those heading the country's six recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Religious symbols, he added, referred to every form of the holy book, images, writings, and all places of worship.

The PKS said the bill was in line with a promise it made ahead of April's general election, when it gained a significant increase in votes, to 11.4 million (8.21 percent) from 8.4 million (6.7 percent) in the previous election in 2014, when it was only the sixth most popular party with voters.

It also mentioned that the bill was based on the criminalization of some prominent ulemas such as Abdul Somad, who had been reported to police for insulting the cross, and Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia for defaming Indonesia's secular ideology. 

 

'Not special citizens'

However, the bill has drawn sharp criticism amid accusations it is politically motivated.

Divine Word Father Otto Gusti Madung, the rector of Ledalero Catholic School of Philosophy in Flores, said: "Before the state, religious leaders are ordinary citizens, just like everyone else, so they don't need to be specially protected.

"The danger of this bill is that any criticism of religious leaders and religious symbols can be criminalized. In fact, religious leaders being people who have power also need criticism to avoid abuse of power."

The law on the protection of religious symbols, he added, was also unnecessary because it is already regulated in a human rights legislation related to religious freedom.

Irma Riana Simanjuntak, the spokesperson for the Indonesia Churches Union, said Indonesia adheres to the principle that everyone is equal before the law.

"Whether it is religious leaders or ordinary people, all need the same protection," she said. "This bill conditions society in classes, where religious leaders have privileges before the law, something that is very absurd."

She said the bill would trigger wider problems because "the interpretation of religious figures and religious symbols can be very broad and varied."

"This bill is very easily misused for certain interests," she added.

Criticizing the reasons put forward by the PKS, Lucius Karus, a senior researcher at Indonesian Parliament Watch, said religious leaders or ulemas were naturally supposed to be beyond threats.

"Basically, they carry a message of peace following their respective teachings," he said.

Karus said the reasons outlined by the PKS to justify the new legislation showed it was political because the religious figures mentioned in it formed part of PKS' support base.

Religious leaders who claimed to be victims could not cite their status as a reason for being targeted. "It happened because of crimes they committed, and it just happened that they were ulemas or religious leaders," he said.

Instead of protecting religious leaders, the bill had the potential to trigger provocations that were conveyed using religious arguments.

"Religious leaders have the potential to fall into that danger, which makes our situation worse. That must be anticipated," said Karus.

 It protects ill-mannered clerics

Ahmad Nurcholish, a Muslim scholar from the Indonesia Conference for Religion and Peace, said that instead of making a special law, religious leaders should be consistent and measured in their actions so as not to be ensnared in lawsuits.

"They should just preach politely and refrain from insulting other groups who differ in their understanding of religion and not call other groups infidels," he said.

"If they prioritize tolerance and respect for other people or groups of different ethnicities, races, religions, religious beliefs, I don't think they will have any problems."

Reverend Palti Panjaitatan, chairman of the human rights group Solidarity of Victims of Violations of Freedom of Religion and Beliefs, said that "religious leaders only need to protect their words and actions" so that they are not caught in the law."

Karus, meanwhile, thinks the chances of the proposed legislation becoming law is still far.

It depends on the text of the draft bill and "on the support from other parties. I hope the public will keep their eyes open and evaluate it," he said.

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