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Confluence of religion and politics: Extremism on the rise in Indonesia

A new AI report claims Indonesia is making use of 'oppressive' blasphemy laws to jail people for their beliefs. Analyst Robin Bush talks to DW about why the country is witnessing a rise in religious intolerance.

Titled Prosecuting Beliefs, the report by the rights group Amnesty International focuses on the rise in the number of blasphemy-related convictions during former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's decade in power (2004-2014). The paper, released on Friday, November 21, documents the cases of more than 100 individuals convicted of blasphemy in Indonesia over the past decade.

The authors of the 50-page report accuse Indonesian authorities of having made increased use of a range of blasphemy laws to imprison individuals for their beliefs, contributing to an intensifying climate of 'intolerance' in the country. "Scores of individuals have been imprisoned – some for nothing more than whistling while praying, posting their opinions on Facebook or saying they had received a 'revelation from God,'" said Rupert Abbott, AI's South East Asia and Pacific Research Director.

Although the so-called blasphemy law in Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim country – has been on the books since 1965, and is part of the Criminal Code, it was rarely used until President Yudhoyono took power. Many of those convicted are perceived as holding minority religious views and beliefs, and some have been imprisoned for up to five years.

Robin Bush

Bush: 'Confluence of religious intolerance and the rising power of state institutions to regulate religion are reasons for the increase in blasphemy convictions'

In a DW interview, Robin Bush, a Jakarta-based Southeast Asia expert at the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), talks about the reasons behind the surge in blasphemy-related convictions over the past years and explains why she hopes that newly elected President Joko Widodo will be much more supportive of minority rights and religious freedom than his predecessor.

DW: When was Indonesia's blasphemy law introduced?

Robin Bush: The 1965 Blasphemy Law (Law No.1/PNPS/1965) was issued as a presidential decree by Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, in early 1965, and criminalized expressions of hostility or hatred against the six religions officially recognized in Indonesia – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Since 2003, over 150 Indonesians have been arrested under this law, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In 2009, a group of human rights activists called the Religious Freedom Advocacy Team brought the blasphemy law to the Constitutional Court for judicial review on the grounds that rather than protecting minority rights, it was often used to restrict religious minorities, and violated constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.

In April 2010, the Court ruled that that the law was constitutional in its restriction of minority religious beliefs, on the grounds that it protects public order. For minority rights activists, the most problematic aspect of the law is the criminalizing of "deviation" from the "basic tenets of a religion," which puts state authorities in the role of establishing an orthodoxy of religious belief.

The AI report argues that there was a surge in the number of blasphemy-related convictions during the past administration. What is your view on this?

This is correct. There are many reasons for the increase in blasphemy convictions, but ultimately it comes down to a confluence of increasing intolerance of religious heterodoxy amongst the public, the rising power of state institutions to regulate religion, and the growing influence of organizations and key individuals who hold a conservative view of religious freedom.

These are institutions like the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Ulama) and individuals like Ma'ruf Amin, who was Yudhoyono's key advisor on Islamic affairs and the head of MUI's Fatwa Council, as well as the Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadarma Ali. The close relationship between the MUI, a non-state body, and key members of the Yudhoyono administration and Yudhoyono himself in effect allowed the MUI to determine state policy on religious freedom in many cases.

According to the AI report, over the past decade, minority groups have increasingly been targeted in mob violence or other attacks, with perpetrators rarely held to account. Has Indonesian society become more intolerant in terms of freedom of religion?

Yes, according to several international and national opinion polls, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Center, and the Lembaga Survey Indonesia (Indonesia Survey Institute), it appears that Indonesians are indeed becoming more intolerant, particularly with regard to issues of religion. One might argue that this is not a phenomenon solely restricted to Indonesia, as we see a hardening of divisions along religious and ethnic fault-lines in many areas of the world today, often resulting in conflict.

What does it take for someone to be accused of blasphemy?

The accusation itself can be based on rumor, public perception, or a myriad of factors. Then multiple state institutions come into play – such as the police, who decide whether to arrest the person or not, and then the courts system.

Closely intertwined with these official state institutions are non-state actors like the MUI, the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front), who often threaten or actually conduct violence and agitation related to alleged 'heretics,' and Muslim mass-based organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which are, generally speaking, quite tolerant of religious diversity.

In all of these cases, there is often a lot of variation between positions of these organizations at the national level in Jakarta, and that at the local level where many of the incidents of 'blasphemy' take place.

Indonesian Muslims attend prayer at the slopes of Mount Merapi during celebrations for Eid al-Adha, the 'Festival of Sacrifice', at Kalitengah Lor village on October 26, 2012 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Bush: 'We see a hardening of divisions along religious and ethnic fault-lines in many areas of the world today'

Why did the previous Indonesian administration fail to put an end to this practice?

Former President Yudhoyono has a clear and distinct track record of restricting religious freedom and minority rights during his administration, despite the many public statements he made -usually in international contexts - in support of religious tolerance.

This can be seen through his direct appointments of key individuals who hold a very restrictive view of religious freedom, such as the two mentioned earlier, but also the Chief of Police Timor Pradopo, the Minister for Home Affairs Gumawan Fauzi, and others.

It can also be seen in his failure to take concrete action - beyond making rhetorical promises - to uphold rule of law in the many incidents during his administration of violation of religious freedom. It may be that Yudhoyono's position on these issues was one based purely on political calculation, and in response to what he saw as increasing public support for intolerance, or it may be that he himself holds the view that the state should indeed arbitrate religious belief.

What stance do you see newly-elected President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo taking on this issue?

I have not seen public statements by President Jokowi on this issue precisely. However, noting that the first action of Lukman Hakim - appointed by Jokowi as Minister of Religion - upon taking office was to meet with representative of minority groups like the Shiites and Ahmadiyah, and to grant official sanction to the Bahais, we can hope that Jokowi will be much more supportive of minority rights and religious freedom than his predecessor.

Dr. Robin Bush is director of Research and Strategic Collaborations for Asia at the research institute RTI International.

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