Since becoming a democracy that supports freedom of speech, Indonesia, ironically, has seen an increase in people being jailed for blasphemy.
This article aims to explain the reasons for this since the end of the Soeharto era.
The recent situation
Under Soeharto’s 32-year authoritarian rule, Indonesia processed only ten blasphemy cases. The number jumped to 130 cases between 1998 and 2012 after Soeharto’s dictatorship ended in 1998.
This trend continues. In 2017, the nation witnessed a high-profile blasphemy case involving Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian who was a strong contender to be elected Jakarta governor that year. Ahok was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison for defaming Islam with his remarks.
The man who helped send Ahok to prison by sharing on social media the edited version of Ahok’s controversial comments, Buni Yani, faced hate speech charges. He was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison.
After Ahok and Buni Yani, similar cases emerged.
Others claim that the cases represent an incomplete secularisation in Indonesia, where religion is still regarded as an important aspect in public space.
While such views cannot be ignored, it is important to put this issue in a much broader political setting.
I looked at the patterns of the use of blasphemy law since its issuance in 1965 until now. I argue that the rise of blasphemy cases is happening due to a political situation within Indonesia that is predatory in nature.
The historical patterns
The blasphemy law has always been political. President Soekarno issued a presidential decree in 1965 to complement the blasphemy article in Indonesia’s Criminal Code. The decree was issued to secure support from Islamic parties following a “unilateral action” by Soekarno’s main ally to that point, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Under the action, the Communist Party seized lands belonging to Muslim landlords.
Soekarno issued the regulation to appease Islamic groups. The law prohibited “deviant interpretations” of religious teachings that were strongly affiliated with Communist Party.
In 1968, during the early years of Soeharto’s administration, the first blasphemy trial was held. Prominent writer H.B. Jassin was found guilty for the publication of a short story that not only contained an inappropriate portrayal of God but also criticised Soekarno. Soeharto, however, didn’t raise the case to support Soekarno. He was responding to pressure from Muslim groups and hoping to gain their support.
After that the law went into hiatus for more than 20 years.
Then in the early 1990s, Soeharto began using the blasphemy law as a tool to maintain his political power. This was at a time when Soeharto’s political-economic alliance faced frictions, particularly with the military. This internal conflict encouraged Soeharto to seek support from Muslim groups that had previously been the target of constant state repression.
Soeharto’s political strategy explains the jump in the number of blasphemy cases to ten cases during his presidency. Soeharto used these cases to gain support from conservative Muslims and to suppress his political opponents.
This was evident in a blasphemy case in Situbondo, East Java, before the 1997 general election. A 28-year-old man was found guilty of defaming Islam and sent to prison for five years. Some reports recorded that the public’s dissatisfaction with the verdict triggered riots that killed five people.
Some speculate that it was Soeharto’s strategy to undermine the power of the country’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), at one of its supporters’ bases in Situbondo. NU was the main supporter of the United Development Party (PPP), a leading competitor with Suharto’s party, Golkar.
What are predatory politics
Indonesian democracy has been tainted by predatory practices, where politicians will use whatever means they can to defeat their rivals. Their strategies include using money, violence, religion and ethnicity to secure public support.
These practices are a legacy of the New Order political regime. The New Order’s depoliticising policy and banishment of the Left, as seen in the massacre of communists, disorganised society. This contributed to the absence of organised political movements that prioritise public interests.
Given the nature of politics that encourages political actors to use the law to secure votes, it will be no surprise if the number of blasphemy cases continues to increase.
Australian scholar Melissa Crouch has claimed that the small number of blasphemy cases before the reform era was due to Soeharto’s effective control of public expression. But it’s simplistic to say that the jump in the number of blasphemy cases is because Soeharto no longer ruled.
The number of blasphemy cases has occurred against a background of rising piety in Indonesian society. At the same time, Muslim conservative groups can’t organise themselves as a coherent political force.
Politicians see this as an opportunity to mobilise Muslims to support their political interests. Using the blasphemy law is one of the strategies politicians use to mobilise conservative Muslims’ support by raising religious sentiments or prosecuting their political opponents.
For example, many local political leaders promote the issuance of sharia bylaws to repress minority groups, such as Ahmadiyya, as part of their strategies to secure votes from conservative Muslims in regional elections.
The recent blasphemy and religious hate speech cases also show how politics play an important role in shaping them. Many of the people who have reported such offences are affiliated with political parties competing in the upcoming 2019 election.
The charges and counter-charges between political rivals have become rampant, as seen before in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.
Impossible to revoke
Hence, the increase in blasphemy cases is neither a result of rising intolerance and Islamic radicalism in society nor a phenomenon typical of a non-secular state.
Predatory politics that force politicians to seek power by using religious issues for their own interests play a part in the rise of blasphemy cases.
The blasphemy law opens the door for politicians to gain power by capitalising on religious sentiments and the public’s rage that polarise society. As long as Indonesia’s blasphemy law serves the interest of political elites, it is impossible to revoke this law.