Indonesia: Law Banning Blasphemy Is Upheld

The New York Times & Jakarta Post

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled 8 to 1 Monday that a controversial 45-year-old law banning religious blasphemy was constitutional. The law allows the attorney general’s office to ban religious groups that “distort” or “misrepresent” official faiths and calls for up to five years in prison for anyone found guilty of heresy. The law also limits the number of officially recognized religions to six: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. [This in spite of the fact that prior to Monday's ruling, plaintiffs were confident that a judicial review to contest the law would be successful*.] 

In practice, the law is applied primarily to perceived offenses against mainstream Islam; nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims.

The court’s chief justice, Mohammad Mahfud, said the law did not contradict the country’s 1945 Constitution or its national ideology, known as Pancasila, which nominally guarantee freedom of religion.

Several fundamentalist Islamic groups, which have gathered during hearings since the court took up the case in November, rallied outside the courthouse again on Monday as 600 riot police officers looked on.

The Islamic Defenders Front, a militant group that has attacked religious pluralism rallies in the past, attacked lawyers seeking to repeal the law during the final hearing last week.

The judicial review was first sought by a coalition of human rights groups led by the Wahid Institute, an organization founded by Indonesia’s late president, Abdurrahman Wahid, that campaigns for religious pluralism.

“This is a setback for Indonesian democracy,” said Uli Parulian Sihombing, a human rights lawyer and part of the team that filed the challenge.

Supporters of the law say it is necessary to prevent conflict among religious groups.

The 1965 decree was cited in 2008 when the government all but banned Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect that does not believe that Muhammad is the last prophet — a central tenet of Islam.

In 2007, the Indonesian Supreme Court sentenced Abdul Rachman, who claims to be the reincarnation of Muhammad, to three years in prison.

The 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 that he had realized his teachings were misguided and would return to mainstream Islam.

Published: April 19, 2010
A version of this article appeared in print on April 20, 2010, on page A8 of the New York edition.

*Plaintiffs expect progressive ruling on blasphemy law

Arghea Desafti Hapsari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Sat, 04/03/2010 

More than half of the experts presented by the Constitutional Court agree the blasphemy law is problematic, boosting plaintiffs’ confidence that a judicial review to contest the law will be successful.   

The court has recently upset women’s rights activists and supporters of pluralism by rejecting a judicial review of the controversial pornography law, which they said could be used to criminalize women and artists.  

The petitioners of the judicial review of the blasphemy law, however, believed the result of their endeavor would be less gloomy.

One of the plaintiffs, noted Muslim scholar and women’s rights activist Musdah Mulia, said she was “optimistic” the court would rule in favor of the petitioners.

“This is a new found awareness… on the law that applies in the country and [impinges] constitutional rights. It is unfortunate, though, that this awareness has only been felt by a small group [of intellectuals] but not people in general,” she told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

After 12 hearings, the court has seen a total of 49 experts take the stand, 16 of whom were appointed by the court. They are considered to be more neutral than experts presented by the petitioners and the government.

Eight, including noted Muslim intellectual Azyumardi Azra, Catholic priest FX Mudji Sutrisno and cultural observer and poet Taufik Ismail, asked for the controversial law to be revised. Many have criticized the ambiguity of the law’s definition of blasphemy.

Azyumardi said the revised law should “provide a clearer definition of what constitutes blasphemy”.

Five other experts, also presented by the court, recommended scrapping the law altogether.

They include liberal Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar Abdalla, reverend S.A.E Nababan and cultural observer and critically-acclaimed cinematographer Garin Nugroho.

Garin, the last expert to testify in the judicial review request, said the law has discouraged Indonesians from discussing religious issues.

“It is the biggest setback in the history of this nation in terms of democracy and its agenda for pluralism,” he added.

One expert, Djohan Effendy of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), said that the law “has claimed victims”.

Although he did not give his recommendation on whether to keep or scrap the law, he agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that “faith falls into God’s authority. The state and its apparatus should never interfere”.

Another court-appointed expert, anthropologist Ahmad Fedyani Saifuddin, recommended enacting new regulations to replace the 45-year-old Blasphemy Law.

He deemed the law irrelevant as Indonesians today are living in a different country than in the 1960s. Back then, he said, the government focused on ensuring national integration and pacifying the revolution and the guided democracy.

But one court expert argued that the law should be retained. Edward Omar Syarif Hiariej, a law expert from the Gadjah Mada University, said that the law was constitutional and ensured public order.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, however, noted that Edward also said that the law has always been used to judge one’s thought.

The law’s substance, he added, has actually been included in the Criminal Code. Experts presented by the government and those coming from Islamic organizations have warned of possible conflicts in society should the law be revoked.

Constitutional justice Maria Farida said in a recent interview with the Post that the panel of judges “does not take conflict threats into account in its judgment”.

Musdah said she highly appreciated the process the court had taken in the review of the law. “The discussion in the Constitutional Court has been very elegant and open,” she added.