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Op-Ed: Indonesia Should Prevent Religious Conflict, but Its Blasphemy Law Does More Harm Than Good

This op-ed originally appeared in The Globe Post on February 8, 2019.

By Gayle Manchin and Nadine Maenza

Recently, Grace Natalie, head and founder of the young and progressive Indonesian Solidarity Party, gave a speech at a party gathering in which she criticized laws prohibiting “immoral acts” like gambling and drinking.

Reasonable people can and do disagree as to how much governments should regulate these activities. However, because many of these “morality laws” are based on Sharia, some local Muslim groups filed a formal complaint with the police, claiming Natalie had insulted the Quran. If Indonesian police decide to formally charge her with blasphemy, she could face up to five years in prison.

Two years ago, Meiliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman from North Sumatra, remarked to an acquaintance about the volume of a loudspeaker on a nearby mosque. This comment sparked a riot that destroyed at least 14 Buddhist temples and, as of August, landed her in prison for 18 months for blasphemy.

After she was convicted, the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs issued guidelines on the use of mosque loudspeakers, suggesting her comments were not unreasonable or insulting.

Interreligious Tensions

Indonesia’s Criminal Code prohibits expression or acts “at enmity with, abusing, or staining a religion adhered to in Indonesia.” While intended to prevent conflict, this provision has, in practice, exacerbated interreligious tensions. Instead of encouraging Indonesians of all faiths to respect each other, the code has given license to hardliners to attack people from other religious traditions for innocuous or offhand comments.

Even more troubling, hardline opportunists increasingly wield the blasphemy law against political opponents. In December 2016, a coalition of groups staged massive protests against Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, after he allegedly said that the Quran misled Muslims by forbidding them from voting for a Christian. In April 2017, Ahok lost his bid for reelection, and a month later he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for blasphemy.

Fortunately, the government reduced his sentence and released Ahok from prison on January 24.

Human Cost of Blasphemy Law

Indonesia’s reforms since 1998 have earned it widespread praise as a successful Muslim democracy, including from Vice President Mike Pence. Unfortunately, democracy also brought pressure on the government to accommodate hardliners who want to intimidate religious minorities.

The current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has tried to resist, but 23 people have been sentenced in blasphemy cases since he took office in 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.

And just eight weeks ago, the Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office released a mobile phone app that allows users to report instances of religious heresy.

In October, a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve as Commissioners, visited Indonesia. We learned about the human cost of Indonesia’s blasphemy law when we met with a local activist who was helping Meiliana and others accused under the law.

Tolerance

Although we were dismayed to hear about the persecutions, we were heartened to encounter many Indonesians who were genuinely committed to religious pluralism. They not only tolerated other religions but took pride in providing moral and even financial support to them.

After a group of suicide bombers attacked three churches in Surabaya in May, Muslims from a neighboring community offered their condolences and helped clean the debris. Nahdlatul Ulama – with an estimated 40 million members one of the world’s largest Muslim organizations – has criticized Meiliana’s conviction, stating outright that her remarks did not constitute blasphemy.

In USCIRF’s 2018 Annual Report, we placed Indonesia on our Tier 2 (countries that meet at least one of three criteria of systematic, egregious, or ongoing violations) for tolerating or engaging in serious violations of religious freedom, including blasphemy law enforcement. Last year, we issued a report analyzing blasphemy laws around the world and found Indonesia’s vaguely worded and imposed penalties harsher than average for such laws.

Defining Blasphemy

Indonesia has the right and indeed the duty under domestic and international law to prevent religious conflict. Balancing freedom of speech and religious tolerance is difficult for many countries, including the United States.

Yet, we came away from our visit convinced that Indonesia’s current blasphemy law, especially as applied, does more harm than good. We hope Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo use the good relationships they have built with Indonesian political and religious leaders to call for the repeal of the blasphemy law.

At the very least, the Indonesian government should amend the law to more precisely define blasphemy, to reduce the penalties, and to ensure that people like Natalie Grace and Meiliana are not severely punished for offhand comments.