Indonesia on Fire: Losing Our Minds Over Blasphemy Laws

Nov 21, 2019 | 360, GOV, Indonesia, NEWS

Indonesia is beginning to change its face of tolerance, to one of repression and radical Islamism.

The backdrop is as bleak as you can get in the current century. Christian persecution is on an all-time high in Southeast Asia, as part of the heightening efforts of governments and radical Islamists to wrest power from the people. The alarming report “Persecuted and Forgotten?” describes the alarming trend of savage blasphemy laws endangering people for their beliefs and personally-held values.

To quote the report: “With guilty blasphemy verdicts carrying the death penalty and radical Islamists gaining more political power in the region, Christians are living in fear for their lives,” the report states. “Conversions to Christianity from Islam in particular carry tremendous risk. Attacks on churches have occurred in some places.” Blasphemy laws are black and white, and offer no respite from violence, no space for reasoning, and no compromise with contrary views. They exist, for the most part, to satisfy those who are in power – nothing more.

Blasphemy Over Human Rights? 

Andreas Harsono from the Human Rights Watch is the founder of the Jakarta-based Institute for the Studies on Free Flow Information. In 2018, he visited an Indonesian woman named Meliana, who is still incarcerated at Medan, North Sumatra. Andreas recalled the conditions of the prison: pens, money, and cellphones were not allowed. Meliana shared a 30 square meter cell with about fifteen other women. There was enough space to sleep, but movement is highly restricted. 

Andreas visited Meliana with Musdah Mulia, a female Muslim scholar, who challenged Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law back in 2009-2010. Mulia lost, but continues to uphold that prisoners like Meliana should not be in prison at all. Meliana’s constitutional torment began in 2016 when she privately asked the daughter of a mosque caretaker if it would be possible to lower the volume of the calls to prayer. The mosque in question was located in Meliana’s home town of Tanjung Balai. Meliana is a Buddhist. Buddhism is considered as one of the six officially recognized religions in the country, but this was not enough to stop radical Muslims from going after Meliana and her family. 

This is on top of the recruitment scandal that implicated the Indonesian National Armed Forces and National Police just two years ago, where applicants are subjected to an invasive “two-finger virginity test” and were screened on the basis of their “physical beauty and purity.” To date, both the Indonesian Society of Obstetrics & Gynecology and the Indonesian Medical Association have yet to issue statements denouncing the barbaric and chauvinistic practices – or perhaps they have no reason to, being instruments of the state themselves. 

Since late September, the country has been rocked by fierce student protests. President Joko Widodo has proposed to delay the passing of the bills, and political observers are now fearful that the fierce protests will continue in the streets of Indonesia if the government does not heed the voices of its own citizens. According to Djayadi Hanan, a lecturer from the Paramadina University in Jakarta, people “are trying to protect their civil liberties and individual liberties.” 

To say that it is only about premarital sex would be a misreading of the situation. The protests, in fact, was primarily sparked by a new law that would weaken the country’s anti-corruption agency. The current riots are reportedly as big as the riots during the Suharto dictatorship. Tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in response to the problematic provisions of the new criminal code.

Criminalizing Sex

In a move that is seen as highly uncharacteristic of normally tolerant and open Indonesia, a plan to overhaul the criminal code of the country is causing waves in the international community and within the country. Australia has already issued warnings to its own citizens who are planning to travel to Bali, as they may be prosecuted for having unwed sex. 

The same applies for LGBT couples who are now at risk should they be charged with having unwed sex or gay sex. Fortunately, Indonesians are not taking things lying down. Many sectors of the country are expressing outright indignation and rage over the proposed overhauls to the country’s criminal code, which includes not just a ban on premarital sex, but also ridiculous laws such as criminalizing insults to the President, and of course, tougher blasphemy laws. 

The Overhaul That Kills Civil and Individual Liberties

Among the most problematic provisions of the draft of the Indonesian Criminal Code are:

1. Article 2 – Recognizes “living laws” Indonesia, which may be interpreted to include hukum adat (customary criminal law) and Sharia (Islamic Law) at the local level. What this means is that discriminatory laws from both codes can be used against women, religious minorities, and members of the LGBT community. There is currently no official list of living laws in the countries, and this puts many people at risk of discriminatory prosecution at the whim of radical Islamists and conservatives.

2. Article 417 – Extramarital sex is punishable to up to one year in prison. While the provision does not mention homosexual relationships and intimacy, since Indonesia does not recognize same-sex marriage, this article effectively bans all forms of gay sex as it applies to everyone now, not just married couples.

3. Article 419 – Punishes couples living together without a marriage certificate to up to six months in prison. Village heads can file police reports of such couples, regardless of their citizenship/nationality.

4. Article 421 – Punishes “obscene acts” in public to up six months of prison time. This obscenity provision can easily be used to harass and prosecute same-sex couples.

5. Article 413 – This provision was supposed to be for the production and distribution of pornography. However, the definition of the “deviant sexual intercourse” has allowed the use of the 2008 Law on Pornography to discriminate against the LGBT.

6. Articles 304 to 309 – These provisions expand the Blasphemy Law, which now carries a maximum five-year prison term. To date, over 150 individuals have been prosecuted under Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law. Blasphemy Law supposedly punishes deviations from the central tenets of the country’s six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

The Human Rights Watch, among many other organizations, is calling for the complete repealing of the overhauled criminal code as the problematic provisions run contrary to the freedom that all citizens and guests of the country deserve.

If these provisions should see the light of day, Indonesia will create a long-lasting atmosphere of fear that targets the most vulnerable sectors of the population, as well as citizens that are visiting the country, boosting its tourism industry. Indonesia should choose instead to be forward thinking and progressive, and unfettered by repressive codes and laws that belong to a bygone era. It’s time to move forward to a new era of tolerance, openness, and inclusion.

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