The Indonesian police recently named the Chinese-Indonesian and Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, also known as Ahok, a suspect in a blasphemy case. This came after Muslim groups, which accuse Purnama of “insulting Islam”, staged an enormous street protest (and warned that they plan another).
President Joko Widodo stepped in and ordered the police to quickly investigate the allegation against Purnama, who is running for re-election in next year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election.
Muslim groups had reported Purnama for alleged blasphemy after a video went viral showing Purnama criticising his political opponents who tried to dissuade people for voting for him by referencing a verse in the Koran.
Around one-quarter of the world’s countries, both in developing and developed economies, have anti-blasphemy laws. But these laws punishing speech or actions seen to be contemptuous of religion are highly controversial.
The implementation and application of these laws is politicised and prone to be influenced by public pressure. Purnama’s blasphemy investigation is a clear example.
Indonesia’s anti-blasphemy laws
Rights activists argue public pressure to punish those accused of blasphemy reveals a weakness in law enforcement, which comes as religious intolerance grows in Indonesia.
Such arguments cannot be dismissed. But it is important to take into account the broader context, including how blasphemy laws came to exist in Indonesia and in other countries.
The history of Indonesia’s blasphemy law is very political. The 1965 blasphemy law was introduced during a tense period in Indonesian history, where the Communist Party, the army and Islamist groups were all vying for political power.
Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, released the law as a presidential decree “on the prevention of religious abuse and/or defamation”. It was intended to protect the major religions recognised by the state – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestanism and Confucianism – from unorthodox interpretations and blasphemy. Sukarno was succeeded in the late 1960s by Suharto, who ruled until 1998.
After a bloody purge in 1965-66, Suharto banned communism but retained the blasphemy law. In 1969, he got the parliament to promote the decree into a law. An anti-blasphemy clause was also inserted into Indonesia’s penal code.
But during his rule, only ten people were prosecuted under the 1965 blasphemy law. In contrast, in the last 15 years, at least 106 people have been prosecuted and convicted of blasphemy.
The recent spike in blasphemy cases in Indonesia occurred as political Islam found space in an increasingly democratised system following the end of Suharto’s authoritarian rule in 1998.
Since Suharto stepped down, blasphemy provisions have been added in various laws, such as the Electronic Information and Transaction Law and the Child Protection Law.
The strengthening of blasphemy laws have resulted in religious minorities being criminalised and discriminated against. Groups such as Ahmadiyya and Shiites have been subject to these laws for publicly practising their faiths.
As in Purnama’s investigation, the cases against the two groups were also influenced by pressure from the Sunni Muslim majority in Indonesia.
Activists have requested the country’s Constitutional Court review the 1965 blasphemy law. But the court decided in 2010 and again in 2013 that the law should remain.
Other countries are facing similar issues where religious majority groups exploit the state to control religious practice and expressions in their societies.
Extrajudicial killings in Pakistan
In Pakistan, vigilante groups have pressured law enforcers to investigate blasphemy cases and the judiciary to convict. Thousands of people have been accused under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Pakistan inherited its blasphemy law from India’s British colonial rule. In the 1980s, Pakistan’s president at the time, General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, added clauses introducing the death penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
Extremists don’t hesitate to take the law into their own hands, which has led to extrajudicial killings. Pakistan’s Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who sought to reform the blasphemy law, was one such victim. He was killed by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, who claimed it was his “religious duty” to murder the minister over his opposition to the blasphemy law.
Despite the problems surrounding blasphemy cases, most of the major parties in Pakistan publicly support the blasphemy law to avoid alienating conservative groups.
Germany’s blasphemy law
Attempts by religious conservatives to protect their religion from blasphemy are not limited to developing Muslim majority countries. In Christian-majority Germany, blasphemy cases are very rare but its blasphemy law still stands. Conservatives there have been trying to change the law to make it easier to convict someone for blasphemy.
Paragraph 166 of the German penal code punishes anyone who “publicly, or via the dissemination of writings, slanders the religious confession of another person” on the condition that this is done in a way that “is meant to disturb the peace”.
In 2000 and 2012, conservative German politicians proposed deleting the phrase “disturbing the peace” to make the law easier to apply. Their attempt failed.
In 2016, Germany sentenced a man under this law for “blasphemous” bumper car stickers.
Playing with public pressure
The interests of religious majorities always loom over blasphemy investigations. That means blasphemy cases are easily politicised.
Wherever anti-blasphemy laws exists, political actors may be tempted to influence blasphemy investigations to curry favour with religious majorities for their own political benefit.
In Jakarta’s Purnama case, the fact that he’s running in the Jakarta gubernatorial election increases the temptation for his opponents to play with public pressure to their own political benefit.
Will this blasphemy investigation affect his tilt for re-election as Jakarta governor? We will have to wait and see.