Abusing blasphemy legislation

Indonesia's slide towards identity politics

Indonesiaʹs much vaunted Pancasila system appears to be faltering. Recent years have seen a spate of blasphemy convictions, most notably that of Ahok, ex-governor of Jakarta. Amending existing legislation is not, however, on the agenda of electioneering politicians keen to mobilise conservative Muslim voters. By Rafiqa Qurrata Aʹyun

This year, in the run-up to Indonesiaʹs 2019 presidential election there was another high profile blasphemy conviction, when Meiliana, a Buddhist woman of Chinese heritage, was sentenced to eighteen monthsʹ jail for complaining about the volume of the mosque loudspeakers in her neighbourhood in North Sumatra. Her High Court appeal was rejected in October 2018.

It all began in July 2016 when Meiliana complained to the one of her neighbours that the mosqueʹs speakers used for the adzan (call to prayer) were too loud. At first the village leader treated Meilianaʹs complaint as an issue that was appropriate to be resolved through mediation. Although some people said that Meiliana had blasphemed, according to her lawyer, Ranto Sibarani, the caretaker of the mosque had forgiven Meiliana for this.

However, a rumour spread in her neighbourhood that Meiliana wanted adzan to be banned altogether. This rumour provoked public anger and in the week that followed vigilantes burned down numerous Buddhist temples. Eight rioters were arrested and convicted, receiving jail terms of one to four months.After investigating the riot, the local police described Meiliana as the provocateur and formally accused her of blasphemy. However, in August 2016 the director of the Criminal Investigation Agency of the Indonesian National Police (Bareskrim Polri) stated that Meilianaʹs request that the volume of the mosqueʹs loudspeakers be reduced did not amount to blasphemy. As a consequence, six months after Meiliana complained about the noise from the mosque, the police were yet to lay a charge for blasphemy.

Vigilante pressure

Within the same period, a series of mass rallies in Jakarta were organised by a vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), along with Ahokʹs political opponents to pressure the police to declare Ahok a blasphemy suspect.This inspired the Alliance of the Students and Independent Communities (Aliansi Mahasiswa dan Masyarakat Independent Bersatu) in North Sumatra to request a fatwa from the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI) of Tanjungbalai region in early January 2017, stating that Meiliana has insulted Islam.

Ethnic Chinese woman Meiliana sits on the defendant's chair during her sentencing hearing at a district court in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, 21.08.2018 (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Bakkara)
Setting a new precedent? Prior to Meilianaʹs conviction, three categories of blasphemy existed. Firstly, cases related to different interpretations of religion, when a member of a religious minority promotes an idea that the majority considers deviant. Secondly, cases where the defendant has insulted a part of a religion or a religious symbol, as Ahok was found to have done when he quoted a Koranic verse and insinuated that the verse has been used by his political opponents to deceive voters. Thirdly, in cases relating to proselytisation. Since blasphemy is not comprehensively defined, the Meiliana decision could set a precedent for interpreting other complaints about noisy mosque loudspeakers as blasphemy

The MUI is a quasi-state organisation that is responsible for producing religious opinions which serve as the main reference when police name blasphemy suspects. At this time, the MUI still did not issue a fatwa. However, the North Sumatra branch of Indonesiaʹs second-largest Islamic organisation, Muhammadiyah, did release a statement attributing Meliana with responsibility for provoking the riot.

In mid-January 2017, the leader of the FPI Rizieq Shihab visited Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, to drum up support for the Islamic movement inspired by the anti-Ahok rallies. A week later, on 24 January 2017, the MUI of North Sumatra finally released a fatwa, accusing Meiliana of blasphemy. This fatwa became the basis for the police continuing their investigation and bringing the case to court. It also became the main evidence used by the judge in finding Meiliana guilt of blasphemy.

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