Nov 24th 2016
INDONESIA is admired for successfully
combining Islam and democracy. Yet this month police formally declared the
country’s most prominent Christian politician, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the
governor (in effect, mayor) of Jakarta, to be a suspect in a blasphemy case. If
convicted, Mr Purnama, known as Ahok, faces up to five years in prison. The
case came in response to multiple complaints filed by hard-line Islamists and
threatens to do lasting damage to Indonesia’s democracy. It has also focused
attention on the country’s blasphemy laws.
The laws date back to 1965. In keeping with
its founding principles, which include belief in God, Indonesia criminalises
any “deviation” from six officially recognised religions, as well as acts or
words deemed “hostile” to God, without stating which one. During the 32-year
rule of Suharto, Indonesia’s late strongman, the laws were rarely invoked. But
since the country’s transformation into a vibrant free-speaking democracy after
Suharto’s ouster in 1998, they have been used more frequently. Amnesty
International, a human-rights group, counts at least 106 convictions since
2005. Often they target religious minorities, including Muslim minorities such
the Ahmadiyya, as well as those who have no religious faith at all. One recent
case, in 2012, saw a 30-year-old civil servant jailed for two-and-a-half years
for declaring himself an atheist on Facebook.
The use of blasphemy laws is linked to
rising religious intolerance. In recent years hard-line Islamists have become
increasingly assertive, railing against deviants, heretics and their ilk.
Muslim parties in parliament have pushed laws against alcohol, pornography and
sexual minorities. Yet it is not at all clear that these moves have widespread
support. Most Indonesians still vote for secular parties (they claimed 68% of
the popular vote at the most recent legislative elections, in 2014) rather than
religious ones. Many moderate Muslim leaders defend blasphemy laws on the
grounds that they prevent violence by allowing religious disputes to be settled
by the courts rather than vigilantes. However, moderates also blame politicians
for misusing the laws to stir up sectarian tensions for their own ends. Ahok’s
political rivals, for example, are seeking to use the laws to spoil his chances
of becoming governor again in elections next year.
Whether for political or religious reasons,
Indonesia’s use of blasphemy laws against Ahok (who also happens to be of
Chinese descent) and against minorities more widely poses a serious challenge
to its traditional tolerance. Ahok’s rise to one of the country’s most
prominent political posts and his lead in the upcoming elections had come to be
seen as proof that Indonesians could not be swayed by sectarian arguments.
Indonesia’s democracy has already been damaged by the sight of a double
minority being hounded by fanatics. Were Ahok to be convicted, the damage would
be far worse.