5-2-2013By Joelle Fiss
Fighting Discrimination Program
Last week, the Indonesian police charged five teenage girls with blasphemy. What was their crime? Dancing to a Maroon 5 song, alternating between pop moves and traditional prayer movements. The video, which was filmed with a cell phone, was posted online.
According to press reports, it was first uploaded in March but entirely ignored. Only after the school headmaster reported the “incident” to the Indonesian authorities did the police take interest. The video has now been viewed over 500,000 times on YouTube.
The school headmaster felt offended by the allegedly blasphemous crime—yet he is the one who raised the profile of the video. Even if he considers teenage girls dancing and giggling offensive, are criminal charges the best response? Does plucking the video from obscurity and promoting criminal prosecution advance social and religious harmony? Content offensive to someone is an inevitable part of the internet, and it can be contested through the counter-speech that free expression encourages.
He reported his students to the local police,claiming to have consulted with the Indonesia Ulema Council as well as the Islamic Defenders Front. He also expelled the girls from their school in Tolitoli city on Sulawesi Island. Not only are the teenagers now accused of blasphemy and facing criminal charges, but they have been forbidden from taking an important national exam to graduate from high school.
In other words, a school headmaster has deliberately jeopardized the academic future of his own students. He has received no sanctions as of yet.
The girls are being charged under Article 156 (a) of the Indonesian penal code, which targets those who deliberately express “feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt” against religions. It is hard to define from a legal point of view what constitutes “hostility, hatred or contempt” so the government or individuals can abuse its interpretation and implementation, to stifle dissent and debate. The penalty for violating Article 156(a) is a maximum of five years imprisonment. Minors usually face half the adult sentence, so the teenage girls whose crime was to dance could face juvenile detention for two and a half years.
Indonesia’s blasphemy law is not atypical: these laws promote an atmosphere of intolerance by providing a context in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion. The loose and unclear language of article 156 (a) empowers majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals.
Human Rights First monitors cases of blasphemy around the world. For more information, check out report Blasphemy Laws Exposed. Indonesia’s blasphemy law has often targeted victims on grounds of thought or belief. It has also triggered grave outbreaks of violence. Here is a sample of recent human rights abuses in Indonesia caused by its blasphemy law (in chronological order):
- On July 12, 2012, the Shia leader Tajul Muluk was sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges. Muluk was accused of encouraging Muslims to pray three rather than five times a day, in addition to allegedly stating that the Koran was no longer authentic and that believers need not make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Muluk and his Shia followers were attacked and threatened, and their houses, a place of worship, and Muluk’s school were by a mob of Sunni Muslims, none of whom were arrested. On August 26, Muluk’s village was attacked. Two Shia men were killed, dozens were injured, and many Shia houses were burnt. This time, several perpetrators were detained. Muluk’s sentence was later extended to four years in prison by East Java High court.
- On March 14, 2012, Andreas Guntur, the leader of the spiritual group Amanat Keagungan Ilahi (AKI), was sentenced to four years in prison for blasphemy. A fatwa was issued against AKI by the Indonesia Council of Ulema in 2009, claiming that they rejected conventional Islamic rituals.
- On January 18, 2012, Alex Aan, an atheist man, was arrested for allegedly stating on his Facebook account that God did not exist. Before he was arrested by the authorities, Aan was severely beaten by an angry mob that called for his beheading. While in police custody, he was later beaten by a group of inmates who knew about the accusations against him. After being transferred to another prision, Aan was handed a prison sentence of two years and six months. He is currently appealing his sentence to the country’s Supreme Court.
- On August 14, 2011, in response to the sentencing of individuals involved in a fatal attack on an Ahmadiyya house of worship in February 2011, hundreds of members of Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), armed with machetes and bamboo sticks, stormed another Ahmadi mosque while ten Ahmadis were praying inside in Makassar, South Sulawesi. One victim suffered serious head injuries and three human rights workers who tried to stop the attack were beaten. According to reports, the police did nothing to stop the violent attack.
- On February 8, 2011, more than one thousand protestors stormed the District Court in Temanggung after Antonius Richmond Bawengen, a Christian from Jakarta, received what extremists believed to be a too lenient sentence for blasphemy. The mob attacked prosecutors, judges, and the defendant, injuring nine people; then destroyed three churches and torched vehicles. Bawengen was sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum sentence under Article 156 of Indonesia’s criminal code, for distributing books and leaflets that “spread hatred about Islam.” Some called for the death penalty. Prosecutors are seeking a one-year sentence for Syiabuddin, the leader of the mob, because he runs an Islamic boarding school and has had no prior convictions. Seventeen of the 25 men who were tried for participating in the riot also received light jail sentences of four to five months on charges of vandalism. The maximum sentence for the charge of incitement is six years in prison.
- On February 6, 2011, while twenty-one members of the Ahmadiyya sect assembled at the home of their leader, a mob composed of more than one thousand villagers armed with machetes and sticks, stormed the house of worship, killing four and wounding six others. Graphic video footage of the brutal and allegedly unprovoked attack shows the attackers stoning their victims to death and then beating the corpses, some naked, as police officers and villagers watched and did nothing to stop the bloodshed. According to Waseem Sayed, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States, the police were warned of the attack days before the event.