Indonesia: no porn, no trash-talking Islam

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s Constitutional Court held dozens of hearings and heard testimonies from more than 50 religious experts of all stripes during its six month review of the country’s divisive blasphemy law.

And there, protesting outside every last hearing was the enigmatic Islamic Defender’s Front — a violent militant group most famous for attacking a peaceful rally for religious pluralism in Jakarta in 2008.

When the court ruled in its eight-to-one decision April 19 that the blasphemy law is in fact constitutional and should remain on the books, members of the front shouted “God is great” in Arabic both inside and outside the courtroom.

It was the second time in a month that Indonesia’s highest court ruled in favor of a law that analysts say is at best undemocratic.

In the first ruling, the court upheld the country’s anti-pornography law. Also championed by conservative Islamic groups, the anti-pornography law broadly defines inappropriate forms of dress, dance and even behavior.

Perhaps most worrying, human rights campaigners say, the rulings appear to be in lockstep with the country’s prevailing political climate.

“I think the decisions are consistent with the predominant views posed by both the legislative and executive branches of government and their desire to stick with the status quo — to simply not deal with the fundamentalist movement,” said Holland Taylor, founder of LibForAll Foundation, an American and Indonesian NGO that promotes religious pluralism.

Although Indonesia has made major inroads in its battle against Islamic terrorism, it has been less successful combating fundamentalist ideologies, which often come from outside the country, that continue to influence Indonesia politics, legislation and society.

The blasphemy law, passed in 1965 by then-president Suharto, limits the number of recognized religions here to six: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. It then further calls for up to five years in jail for anyone who “distorts” or “misrepresents” any of those religions.

Human rights groups argue that the law is not in line with the country’s 1945 constitution, which nominally guarantees freedom of religion.

In practice, the blasphemy law is applied primarily to perceived offenses against mainstream Islam. Almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslim, the vast majority of whom are moderate in their beliefs.

“One of the problems is that radical and literal-minded Muslims use the law as justification to take things into their own hands, while the police are reluctant to intervene,” said Azyumardi Azra, an Islamic scholar at Indonesia’s Islamic State University who testified against the law.

Azra pointed specifically to the Islamic Defender’s Front and several other groups that have attacked Islamic sects whose beliefs deviate from the central tenets of Sunni Islam — such as the belief that Mohammad is the last prophet.

The 1965 decree was cited in 2008 when the government all but banned Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect that believes in a prophet after Mohammad, after pressure from radical Muslim groups. The Islamic Defender’s Front has repeatedly set fire to Ahmadi mosques and in some cases to their homes but have rarely themselves been arrested or charged with a crime.

In 2007, the Indonesian Supreme Court sentenced Abdul Rachman, who is the No. 2 leader of a religious group known as Lia Eden and who claims to be the reincarnation of the Prophet Muhammad, to three years in prison under the blasphemy law.

Police also arrested Ahmad Moshaddeq, the leader of an Islamic sect known as Al Qiyada, on charges of blasphemy in 2007, even after he declared from the steps of a central Jakarta police station that he had realized his teachings were misguided and would return to mainstream Islam.

The attorney general's office banned Al Qiyada that same year.  Moshaddeq, whose house was burned down by a mob, has said that he is the next Islamic prophet and does not require his followers to pray five times a day or toward Mecca.

Other Islamic sects have also faced persecution under the law. Uli Sihombing, a human rights lawyer that helped file the constitutional review, estimates that hundreds of people have been jailed, including a number of journalists.

“This is a major setback for Indonesian democracy,” Sihombing said, adding that under Indonesian law, the decision can’t be appealed. “Indonesians are not allowed to interpret their own religions.”

The court’s chief justice, Mohammad Mahfud, argued in the majority opinion that the law is needed to prevent religious conflict — a sentiment shared by the majority of parliament as well.

“This law helps maintain the harmony between religions,” said Abdul Kadir Karding, chairman for parliament’s commission on religious affairs. “People should not have the freedom to desecrate other religions.”

Taylor said both constitutional court decisions were politically motivated, pointing to what he says is a disconnect between what the Indonesian government says publically, both domestically and internationally, and what it does in reality.

Indonesia has been embraced by the United States and other Western democracies as a successful example of a moderate, Muslim-majority democracy. But as Indonesia’s growing economy propels it onto the world stage, human rights groups are increasingly concerned that past government abuses and still unresolved human rights issues like religious freedom are being cast aside.

“There needs to be an absence of money politics and there needs to be an independent judiciary. These things do not exist in Indonesia right now,” Taylor said. “In order for Indonesia to be active on the world stage it will be necessary to mobilize the strengths of its society instead of just articulating ideas that sound good but aren’t backed up by reality.”