6-19-2012By Maron Soueid
Human Rights Defenders
On June 14, an Indonesian man was convicted of spreading racial and religious hatred, fined more than $10,000 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. His crime? Posting “There is no God” on his Facebook page.
Alexander Aan, from West Sumatra, was arrested in January and charged with committing blasphemy for using passages from the Quran to deny the existence of God, a crime under Article 156a of the Indonesian Criminal Code. He was convicted under Article 28 of Indonesia’s Information and Electronic Transaction law. Even before this ruling, Indonesian human rights activists were concerned that blasphemy laws combined with the rising intolerance of certain Islamic fundamentalist groups were hindering free speech and the development of a pluralistic democracy.
In April of 2010, the Indonesian Constitutional Court ruled in favor of upholding a law that prohibits blasphemy. Although Indonesia is a vibrant and flourishing democracy, the country’s blasphemy laws have set it back in terms of protecting those who do not adhere to official state beliefs. While the Indonesian blasphemy law does not specify any particular religion, the government uses it to target those it deems heretical. The government officially recognizes 6 religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Confucianism.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), a group of religious scholars who strictly interpret the Quran, cited the blasphemy law when it released a fatwa, or religious decree, in 2005 declaring the Ahmadiya sect of Islam heretical. In various regions of Indonesia, members of minority religious groups have been attacked. However, efforts to mitigate violence through peaceful activism continue to unite people of all religious convictions.
The controversy over blasphemy laws is part of larger tension between fundamental religious groups and those who seek more freedom of expression. Recently, a concert featuring American performer Lady Gaga was canceled due to protests from religious groups that consider her work threatening to their values. Others considered the cancellation a violation of their freedoms. Similar protests occurred across the region.
The United States should put pressure on the Indonesian government by supporting groups calling for greater religious freedoms and free speech. The blasphemy law—and related violence—are severely compromising Indonesian democracy.