Indonesia: Restricting free religious expression

…well, for some people

Last month, as I stood in the Indonesian Constitutional Court, the Court released its eight-to-one decision to uphold the Law on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religion, also known as the Blasphemy Act. My colleagues and I at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty had submitted an amicus brief in the case, urging the Court to repeal the Act, which has been used in the past to persecute devout members of a variety of religions. The Court’s decision was deeply disappointing for us and our human rights colleagues in Indonesia and across the world, as it not only failed to repeal a problematic law but also legitimated, if not encouraged, future government incursions into matters of conscience.

The Blasphemy Act makes it unlawful “to, intentionally, in public, communicate, counsel, or solicit public support for an interpretation of a religion … that is similar to the interpretations or activities of an Indonesian religion but deviates from the tenets of that religion.” One of the purposes of the Act is to help the government protect Indonesia’s six recognized religions — Islam, [Protestant] Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism — by punishing those who encourage conversion away from one of these religions or preach “deviant” interpretations of those religions. The six official religions each have government-funded religious bodies who decide what an acceptable belief for that religion is and what is not.

The Act establishes civil and criminal penalties, including up to five years imprisonment, for violators. In the past, it has been used to impose criminal penalties on groups like the Ahmadiyya, which most Muslims do not recognize because they believe it deviates from mainstream Islamic teachings. In 2008, the Indonesian Minister of Religious Affairs, the Attorney General, and the Minister of Interior issued the Joint Decree on the Ahmadiyya, which orders Ahmadiyya adherents “as long as they consider themselves to hold to Islam, to discontinue the promulgation of interpretations and activities that are deviant from the principal teachings of Islam.”

Similarly, in 2009, police arrested the leader of the Sion City of Allah Christian sect and six of his followers for straying from “correct Christian teachings.” Because the Sect is based on only one book of the Bible (the Book of Jeremiah), the government banned it as an unacceptable branch of Christianity and forbade its followers from attending church till 2011.

These cases underscore the problematic nature of the Blasphemy Act. While private citizens and religious groups should be able to decide among themselves what does or does not constitute the essence of a religion, and while they should be able to exclude certain individuals from membership on the basis of such disagreements, the Act appoints the state, with all of its police power, as arbiter of what a particular group believes and what it should be allowed to propagate.

In some cases, the state will deem a group blasphemous even when the allegedly blasphemed group disagrees. For instance, in the Sion City case, the government charged the sect with blaspheming the Timor Evangelical Church, despite the Church’s statements to the contrary. Instead of ceding autonomy to the Church and allowing it to determine religious questions, including blasphemy, for itself, the state stated, “We hope the church will not interfere in the case.”

Religion, regulated as such, is defined by the state and is necessarily politicized by the state’s involvement. The state-approved version of religion often tempers social justice components of faith, especially in the case of authoritarian regimes, which use religion to protect and legitimate their own power. Religious matters in this way become intertwined with questions of national security and public order.

Indeed, the public order argument played a big role in the Court’s decision to uphold the Blasphemy Act. The idea is that blasphemy — real or supposed, intentional or unintentional — would anger adherents of a given religion, who will then cause destruction or otherwise act violently. This is different from regulating incitement to violence because it limits peaceful, not violent, speech. According to the Court, the state has to control potentially blasphemous statements, peacefully expressed, in order to increase societal harmony.

However, the court’s reasoning in this regard is deeply flawed as it protects the wrong party and provides the wrong incentives. The Blasphemy Act appeases rather than controls violent extremists, giving them license to continue bullying religious minorities while the police look the other way. It creates a culture of impunity where increasingly egregious crimes are committed with little or no consequences for the criminals.

Instead of penalizing the speaker in order to prevent violence, the law should compel potentially violent actors to regulate their own behavior — even, indeed especially, in the face of insults. Violence is far more effectively controlled if states enforce those laws which punish criminal behavior.

This sort of legal scheme makes sense not simply because it’s more effective, but also because it protects the fundamental human right to free religious expression. Individuals have the right to not only hold particular beliefs but also to express them openly in public — as long as they are peaceful and do not contravene the rights of others. This works in favor of the larger society rather than against it, as only in a free marketplace of ideas can those ideas with greater utility or persuasive power prevail.

In upholding the Blasphemy Act, the Court affirmed the power of the state to compel individuals to abide by certain beliefs against their own conscience — all for the sake of keeping at bay a presumably uncontrollable public. The decision is both logically and morally flawed, and a major setback for human rights in Indonesia.

Asma Uddin is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com and founder of Altmuslimah.com. This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

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