INDONESIA’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is preparing revisions to the country’s so-called Religious Rights Protection Bill that would significantly expand the definition of blasphemy and allow harsher punishments for the crime of insulting religion.
A major change to the law would be a broadened classification of the offence of blasphemy – which is currently “showing hostility, abuse, or desecration” towards a faith, its scriptures or institutions – to seven different kinds of blasphemy with varying periods of imprisonment from six months to five years.
Releasing an unofficial translation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims that the Religious Rights bill will simply further jeopardise minority rights in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The group says parliament is expected to be presented the bill before the end of 2017.
“The misnamed religious rights bill is nothing less than a repackaging of highly toxic regulations against religious minorities in Indonesia,” said HRW’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono on Friday.
Dr Ken Setiawan, an expert in socio-legal studies and human rights at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne also expressed concern, telling Asian Correspondent that “it’s not about religious rights, it’s about the curtailing of them.”
Indonesia is one of the most religious countries on the planet. A massive 95 percent of its population claimed religion is “very important” in a Pew Research poll from 2015, compared with 80 percent of Indians and 19 percent in South Korea.
The country’s centuries-long tradition of largely peaceful religious co-existence, interfaith dialogue and syncretism has, however, increasingly come under attack since the fall of former dictator Suharto. Thousands of Indonesians have died in inter-religious violence in Maluku, Borneo and Java since 1998.
The political freedom granted to hardline Islamist groups during Indonesia’s transition to democracy, coupled with the growing influence of fundamentalist Salafi schools of Islam, has spurred sectarian violence and the persecution of minority groups across the archipelago.
Indonesia’s so-called “religious harmony laws” were introduced under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), whose son Agus ran unsuccessfully as a candidate in this year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election against Ahok and the victorious Muslim candidate Anies Baswedan.
Ironically, the minister who oversaw the laws’ implementation, Suryadharma Ali, was sentenced by the High Court to 10 years in imprison for corruption last year for embezzling almost US$7 million worth of taxpayer funds intended to support Indonesians to undertake hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Lamenting corruption and dysfunction within the religious affairs ministry, Jakarta Post columnist Julia Suryakusuma wrote in June last year: “Actually it should be called the Ministry of Islam, as it deals mainly with issues relating to Islam.”
According to a statement from HRW, Indonesia’s religious minorities “are vulnerable to discriminatory laws and official indifference to worsening intolerance by militant Islamists,” and the new draft law “compounds rather than mitigates those threats.”
Indonesian law recognises six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
The country’s 2010 census showed that more than 85 percent of the Indonesian population is Sunni Muslim. Around 10 percent are Christians, 1.7 percent are predominantly-Balinese Hindus, and the remainder are Buddhists, Confucians and adherents of indigenous religions.
Islam is taken to mean Sunni Islam – in contrast to Shia, Ahmadi or other interpretations of the faith – leading to crackdowns against minority sects in recent years.
Under 1973 marriage laws, those belonging to Indonesia’s tribal religions cannot marry while interreligious marriages require one partner to formally convert to one of the six recognised religious doctrines.
“The recognition of religions in Indonesia is directly tied to civil rights – getting a birth certificate, getting a marriage certificate,” said Setiawan. “It’s almost a cascade which prevents people from accessing their basic rights.”
Indonesia’s strict blasphemy laws came to international attention in May, when Jakarta’s former Christian governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was imprisoned for two years under the legislation, after a court found him to be guilty of insulting the Quran.
At the UN Human Rights Council in May, many countries expressed concern regarding freedom of religion in Indonesia given a sectarian-charged campaign against Ahok which culminated in his jailing. Several urged Indonesia to review and repeal its blasphemy laws.
“Laws that criminalise blasphemy when applied in a discriminatory manner can have a serious inhibiting effect on freedom of expression and on freedom of religion or belief,” said a statement from the EU’s Delegation in Indonesia.
The EU said the laws threaten Indonesia’s “long-standing tradition of tolerance and pluralism.”
Responding to the criticism, the country’s Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly then claimed a “thorough study” of the laws would be undertaken.
But this draft bill looks like an attempt to strengthen, rather than review or repeal the laws, said Setiawan in an interview with Asian Correspondent. “The blasphemy law might have been criticised by all sorts of human rights groups but Indonesia has no intention of abolishing the law,” she said.
The draft bill would allow courts to jail people for exhibiting “writings or pictures that can be publicly seen or audio materials which can be publicly audible, with blasphemous content” for five years.
Anyone who “illegally burns, destroys or taints a holy book” can also be jailed for five years, those proselytising could face four years in prison, while being convicted for deliberately making noise near house of worship carries 6 months’ imprisonment.
Burnt houses, shuttered mosques
In practice, SBY’s “religious harmony” laws have had the effect of restricting the establishment of churches or temples in predominantly Muslim areas. Minority groups have had immense difficulty establishing houses of worship, and in some cases have been the victims of mob violence.
Catholics in Bekasi near Jakarta have faced hostile and at times violent opposition from certain local Muslim groups while trying to construct a church in 2017.
Just last month during Ramadan, authorities in Depok, West Java shuttered an Ahmadi mosque to prevent adherents from worshipping there.
Authorities in Jakarta and other parts of the country have similarly closed many houses of worship in recent years, often under the guise of guaranteeing a minority group’s safety.
The religious ministry’s new draft bill requires “real and serious necessity based on the proportion in which adherents of a particular religion exist relative to a subdistrict or village’s total population.”
It is highly prescriptive, requiring religious adherents to provide a list of names and identification cards for 90 people who will use the proposed house of worship, a list “demonstrating support” from local residents, approval from the religious affairs minister, and approval from the local inter-religious forum.
“These bodies with the power to decide on places of worship and so forth, they don’t have a great reputation,” said Setiawan.
In February 2016, the Al Fatah Islamic school for transgender Muslims in Yogyakarta, Central Java was forcibly shut down by authorities over alleged reports of noisy karaoke nights and alcohol consumption.
In a country where it is commonplace for mosques, schools or other institutions to block off entire streets for private events, the local government claimed Al Fatah was causing a public nuisance because of motorcycles blocking the street during events.
Religious rights as human rights
“It seems to me that this is part of a crackdown on civil liberties that we’ve seen under this administration,” said Setiawan of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government.
“If you look at Indonesia’s national human rights action plan 2014-2019 period, there’s a very strong emphasis on social and economic rights and not so much civil and political rights, within which freedom of religious falls.”
Recent changes to the national law on civil society organisations, which allowed Jokowi to disband fundamentalist Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), have been criticised by hardline Islamic and human rights groups alike.
“The Indonesian government has an obligation to respect religious freedom and defend the rights of religious minorities rather than further entrench discrimination in a legal framework,” Harsono said on Friday.
“The government should toss out this draft law and the discriminatory regulations that it seeks to enshrine.”