According to media reports, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is poised to toughen the country’s blasphemy laws, expanding the definition of blasphemy. And that does not bode well for religious minorities in the world’s most populace Muslim-majority country.
In addition, the government is considering lengthening the maximum sentence for blasphemy to six years in prison from the current five. The proposed legislation, dubbed the Religious Rights Protection Bill, would further erode minority religious rights.
The proposed changes come at a time of rising religious intolerance and increased activity by powerful Islamist forces in Indonesia.
“Throughout its history, less tolerant attitudes have been present in Indonesia and continue today in some parts of the country,” states the 2017 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “For example, in West Papua, non-Muslims feel increasing pressure and discrimination from Muslims.”
The commission also points out that “some Indonesians are concerned by what they perceive is the ‘Arabization’ or ‘creeping Islamization’ of the country’s more pluralistic form of Islam.” This phenomenon has infected other Muslim-majority states, such as Pakistan.
“Some Indonesians attribute this increasingly conservative, less tolerant brand of Islam to the growing influence of Saudi Arabia, including that country’s plans to expand its Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic [LIPIA],” the USCIRF report states. “Based in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, LIPIA offers all-expense-paid education to Indonesian students, which for some could lead to the opportunity to study in Saudi Arabia. But this Saudi-funded education adheres to strict, Salafi Islam, which considerably differs from the style of Islam prevalent in Indonesia.”
According to USCIRF, sectarian tensions in Indonesia “ran high during the last few months of the reporting period because of politically charged blasphemy accusations against Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama.”
Does Ahok’s conviction on a blasphemy charge and two-year prison sentence signal a further deterioration of religious tolerance in Indonesia?
“Yes,” replied Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, who is a professor of Religion, Ethics and Social Science at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. “But it is more complicated than that.”
According to Adeney-Risakotta, Ahok’s “defeat and conviction was more political than religious.” In an email interview, the professor explained that “religion was a tool to try and destroy a very popular leader who was a threat to religious, political and economic elites.”
Are Christians alarmed or concerned by Ahok’s conviction and sentence?
“Yes, Christians are alarmed, but so are the majority of Muslims,” Adeney-Risakotta answered. “It is a wake-up call for many who value the diversity of religious life in Indonesia.”
However, the professor contends that ordinary Christians are generally not concerned about being brought up on false charges of blasphemy in the wake of Ahok’s imprisonment. “Ahok’s charge and conviction was not really because of his statement, but because he was a serious threat to a lot of powerful people,” he asserted.
“Christians and minorities will probably be cautious about making statements about the Koran which could be misinterpreted. Note that the law covers two things: blasphemy and sullying or insulting religion.”
Adeney-Risakotta asserts that “Ahok clearly did not commit blasphemy, but the charge of insulting or denigrating religion is very vague. His conviction is based on the assumption that he said the Qur’an was wrong to suggest that Muslims should not choose Christians as their leaders — that is not what he said.”
“Under President Joko Widodo’s [Jokowi] leadership, Indonesia has consolidated democratic institutions and is seriously addressing many of Indonesia’s pressing problems,” Adeney-Risakotta writes in a soon-to-be published book, which is entitled Living in a Scared Cosmos: Indonesia and the Future of Islam.
However, Adeney-Risakotta contends that Jokowi has been cautious “in confronting intolerance and the violation of the rights of minorities.” Citing reports published by the Setara Institute, an Indonesian human rights group, the professor writes that there has been “a sharp increase in intolerance and attacks on minorities in Indonesia.”
For example, reported incidents of intolerance and attacks increased from “177 in 2014, to 236 in 2015 and rose again to 270 in 2016.” And more than half of those incidents were “carried out by government actors, including police and local administrations.”
For example, Adeney-Risakotta reports that “the local government in Bandung cancelled a Christmas celebration, to be held by a church in a local park, because of threats from a hardline Islamic group. Even though they had a permit, the police stood by and did nothing to protect the group from physical attacks by the radicals, when they tried to hold their service.”
Like USCIRF, the professor contends that it is difficult to accurately measure the rising tide of religious intolerance, because many incidents go unreported.
“Some acts of religious intimidation are little more than criminal protection rackets,” he writes of unreported incidents.
“A local pastor told me that his small church had purchased land and received permission to build a church from the local community,” Adeney-Risakotta reveals in the book.
“An outside, hardline Islamist group got word of it and threatened to burn the church down if they did not pay a very large sum of money to the radical group. The group promised to guarantee their safety if they paid. The church refused to pay but decided to search for a different, more remote location.”
However, Adeney-Risakotta emphatically states in the book that “Indonesia is one of the safest countries in the world, at least as measured by the danger of violent attack.” And he asserts that “most Indonesians live side by side with different ethnic and religious groups, in relative harmony and peace, as they have done for centuries.”
Indonesia and tourism
Indonesia is a foreign tourist destination. According to the country’s Ministry of Tourism, the country welcomed 12 million foreign visitors last year, up from 10 million in 2015. By 2019, the country hopes to receive 20 million foreign tourists.
According to an online report by Skynews.com, tourism officials are attempting to attract millions of foreigners to Indonesia to experience its shopping and culinary attractions. The country boasts of “culinary destinations,” including the island of Bali — the site of the horrific 2002 jihadist terrorist attack that killed 88 Australians as well as visitors from 20 other countries.
History has demonstrated that religious intolerance and radicalism fostered by government persecution of religious minorities, coupled with an atmosphere of impunity, lead to violence. Given the increasingly intolerant atmosphere in Indonesia, the threat of terrorism to western visitors (and non-Muslim locals) will likely increase.
Locking up a prominent Christian politician for the supposed crime of blasphemy against Islam is not the way to attract European tourists, who are experiencing the terror and violence of radical Islam back home in Europe.
What does the future hold for Indonesia?
The future could be bleak or bright, Adeney-Risakotta writes. The country could be engulfed by religious intolerance and extremism, or it could become “a beacon of hope” by demonstrating that a modern Islamic society can be prosperous, democratic and tolerant.
“There is no way to predict how Indonesia will respond to global circulations of social, political, economic and cultural change,” he writes. “But Indonesia is not a passive recipient of global influences. As the largest Muslim country, Indonesia will influence the future of the world.”
Geoffrey P. Johnston