Danielle N. Lussier on Indonesia’s blasphemy law

Indonesian Muslims reciting Al Quran after shalat (prayer). Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia.

Danielle N. Lussier is an assistant professor in political science at Grinnell College, Iowa. Her research focuses on democratization, public opinion and political participation, and religion and politics, with a particular emphasis on Eurasia and Indonesia. Lussier is the author of Constraining Elites in Russia and Indonesia: Political Participation and Regime Survival (Cambridge University Press, 2016). She is currently working on a book project examining the role of houses of worship in fostering political participation in Indonesia. This project has been funded in part by a Global Religion Research Initiative International Collaboration Grant.

On September 22, 2017, she spoke with Tiana Steverson Pugh CMC '19. Photograph and biography courtesy of Danielle N. Lussier.

Blasphemy was made illegal in 1969 by President Suharto, the former Indonesian dictator. During his rule, ten individuals were prosecuted and convicted under the blasphemy law. Amnesty International has reported that from 2005 to 2014 the number of people convicted has risen to 106. Why has there been an increase in the use of the blasphemy law under democracy in Indonesia?

Under an authoritarian system there may be a number of acts that are analogous to the sorts of activities that are being brought to prosecution today that would have never made it to a court system before due to past political repression. Starting in 1998, the rules of the game for courts changed. Most of those individuals who have been accused under this law, which is actually a part of Indonesian criminal code, popularly referred to as the blasphemy law, have been convicted for blaspheming Islam. However, a significant number of those accused are actually identified as Muslim. This is a case where most of the accusations are against individuals who are members of minority religious groups whose practice of Islam is considered deviant from the accepted practice in Indonesia. Under Suharto, there was a lot less tolerance for minority religious expression within Islam. So some of the increase can also be a consequence of the fact that people are feeling greater protection, or at least had been feeling greater comfort in practicing minority religions openly after 1998.

Is the increase in the use of blasphemy cause for concern with regard to Indonesia’s young democracy or is the rise just a result of people being more willing to express themselves?

The rise does have to do with a comfort people are having in using the political system or the judicial system to achieve some sort of redress, but it is disconcerting for a slightly different reason. The concern is not so much the application of the law, but what it symbolizes, which is that there’s greater intolerance for religious pluralism and particularly for minority religious positions. The Indonesian constitution legally protects six religions, but even that, within in Islam there are majority sects, minority sects and, in theory, they all should be protected. Yet there is a clear intolerance towards certain religious practices, and the government seems unwilling or unable to protect those minority groups. This threatens civil liberties, which is a core component of democracy.

Do you think this reveals anything about the growing influence of conservative Islamic groups or is it more a result of the government’s reluctance to enforce the protection of minority religious groups?

It could be a bit of both. It is relevant to think about the bigger picture, which is where do Indonesians see their political identity? If we go back to even the 1945 constitution, when Indonesia first emerged out of colonial rule, there was very meaningful discussion about whether or not the constitution should have a specific basis in Islam or whether or not it should be pluralist. The pluralists won out in that debate, but that story continues to pop up politically since then. The last time there was a real meaningful discussion about amending the constitution to introduce a clause that would require Muslims to adhere to Sharia was in 2002. Now it’s more or less been abandoned, but what we’re seeing is an attempt for Islam to have a greater political role in a system that has largely been pluralist. Not to oversimplify, but there is a contestation happening in the political sphere between what Indonesians often refer to as the red camp and the green camp. The red camp is the nationalist camp, the people who want a nationalist ideology that’s based on Pancasila that has room for Islam, but room for other things too. In other words, we think of the red camp as containing the political parties and organizations in Indonesia that are based on either Pancasila or a non-religious, pluralist ideology. The green camps are more Islamic-based parties and organizations that want to see Islam have a more formal role in the governing structure.

Does Indonesia’s constitution provide any protection to the freedom of speech?

Article 28 of the constitution guarantees freedom to associate and assemble, to express written and oral opinions, but it also says this freedom should be regulated by law. So that’s an interesting situation where it establishes a base line for freedom, but then leaves how that freedom is going to be interpreted up to national laws that can easily be changed. Within the same article, Article 28, there’s also a guarantee of religious freedom. However, there are other freedoms that inherently put these points in tension with each other. For example, in that same article, the very last clause says, “In exercising his/her rights and freedoms, every person shall have the duty to accept the restrictions established by law for the sole purposes of guaranteeing the recognition and respect of the rights and freedoms of others and of satisfying just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, and security and public order in a democratic society.” That very last clause raises the question of a group being able to say, “We have a just demand that to protect our religious freedom, we actually may need to restrict the behavior, speech, or actions of another person.” These ideas are inherently in tension with each other and part of what we’re seeing with the blasphemy law (and with any number of debates that happen on the level of the parliament or on the level of the local parliaments) is the prioritization of some freedoms over others.

Jakarta’s governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was sentenced in May to two years in prison for blasphemy after he criticized the use of a Quranic verse to dissuade people from voting for him and other Christian politicians. His opponents could argue that his supposedly giving an interpretation of a Quranic verse threatens them in a way and therefore he should be in jail?

That was the argument. Many people, myself included, saw this as a very specific political targeting. That this was not the case is the source of a lot of this concern about the prosecution under the blasphemy law. It’s the sort of thing that depends on location—what you can say in one town is not the same thing you can say in another.

What’s interesting about the Ahok controversy is that if you actually go back and watch the video of this, when he makes this comment, people are laughing. In the moment when it’s happening, it’s received as a joke. Only later does it spiral out of control, particularly when another person edits the way he said it. This was very much a case where there was a very strong desire in Jakarta among certain political groups to not see Ahok, who is a very popular politician with a lot of public appeal, not see him advance further in politics. They were looking for something to snag him in, and this ended up being the convenient way to snag him.

In Indonesian politics, moderate Islamic groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have typically held more political power than more conservative groups. Given this, what are the factors that have enabled a conservative group like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to mobilize support from a large number of people and move more into the political mainstream?

We should consider the bigger picture. When we think about the moderate groups like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah and their dominance in Indonesian politics, it’s important to remember that under Suharto only very specific interpretations of Islam were tolerated. They were those moderate positions, and it allowed NU and Muhammadiyah to flourish and to develop a really strong following. A group like FPI would not have been allowed to exist under Suharto. So in some respects, FPI, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and these more radical groups are products of democracy in the sense that greater freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of organization have given rise to views, opinions, and thoughts that had largely been suppressed under Suharto. Our perception of [FPI’s] strength is greater than its actual strength. In this particular case, it’s very hard to estimate membership numbers because formal membership isn’t necessarily the same as the number of supporters. But even if we take a rough guess on membership, NU has probably somewhere between 80 and 110 million adherents. Muhammadiyah probably has somewhere between 22 and 50 million. FPI claims to have 7 million members and that’s probably a heavily inflated number, so they’re still a fringe group. It’s also important to recognize that their presence is very geographically constrained. They’re a very strong group in West Java and in Aceh. In contrast, NU has offices in 169 different districts in Indonesia. Because FPI has a stronghold in West Java, the area just around Jakarta, it’s very easy for FPI to mobilize a strong physical presence in the capital for protest purposes when they want to. I wouldn’t say they’re moving into a political mainstream. They were effective in mobilizing support against Ahok, but there were a lot of other people that then wanted Ahok to go, for other reasons, and were happy to jump on the coattails of FPI. Where there is another issue that’s relevant to these questions is to what extent are more moderate groups willing to speak out against FPI, Hizbut Tahrir, or other radical groups. Many groups regularly make statements that speak against violence, but we rarely see statements backed up with the kind of strong action that might curtail some of these groups’ activities, bringing cases to court or that sort of thing.

Do you think we’ll see action in the future or will moderate groups continue to speak up, but not do anything?

We’re at a turning point. There are a couple of things that came out as a result of the Ahok controversy. One has been a definite effort on the part of a number of Muslim organizations in Indonesia to neutralize political discussion in religious settings. They are trying to diffuse tensions that arose as a result of this controversy and trying to get people to focus on their religious commonalities or on their religious differences, and to leave politics out of it. That’s something that we should be on the lookout for to see whether that happens or not.

During the gubernatorial race, FPI claimed that Governor Ahok was unfit to be governor of Jakarta because he is Christian and ethnically Chinese. How effective are these attacks or claims at swaying voters in Indonesian politics? Are there countervailing forces against those trying to exploit religion for political purposes?

In terms of countervailing forces, after the whole decision was made and Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, the Indonesian Ministry of Religion issued an appeal regarding the content of sermons in houses of worship. The Ministry of Religion covers all six of the constitutionally protected religions in Indonesia. This appeal had nine points that it talked about, regarding what the content should be in religious houses of worship. One said, “The material presented is not charged with practical political campaigns or business promotions.” This is not enforceable, but it was a directive that was sent. A similar recommendation was issued by the Indonesian Ulema Council in May of this year and it further elaborated on these points that were raised by the Ministry of Religion. The Council of Indonesian Mosques has made numerous statements encouraging political neutrality and pluralism in mosques.

Now, to what extent are these sorts of appeals influential among voters? It’s too early to tell. It would be really interesting to examine some individual-level data from Jakarta on these claims. I haven’t seen any studies that look at that. There are a couple of things to bear in mind. One is that Muslims have always been the stronger political force in Indonesia because it is a country that is 88 percent Muslim. This doesn’t mean that Christians don’t have a political role. Of course they do, and there have been prominent Christians in national level politics. But they will always be a numeric minority in politics, even under the best circumstances, just like the Chinese. The Chinese probably constitute somewhere between six and eight percent of the Indonesian population. They’re largely concentrated in urban areas. Politically they’re always going to have a minority status position. Do attacks on a political figure based on ethnicity and religion work? I’m not sure. Indonesia does have a very rich history of pluralism and one of the things that’s been very interesting to look at in terms of political alliances at the level of the legislature or president elections over the past several years is that not all Islamic parties tend to always vote together. There are still meaningful splits. In particular, one of the most significant Islamic parties is largely populated by NU and they often side with nationalists. When you look at who the nationalists are, 85-88 percent of the nationalists are Muslims. It’s more complicated than a target specifically on an ethnic or religious minority.

What effect will Governor Ahok’s sentence have on the participation of religious and ethnic minorities in politics in Indonesia?

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there were people who now think twice about getting involved in politics due to the blasphemy law. As far as ethnic minorities are concerned, remember that Indonesia is a multi-ethnic country. There’s no ethnic majority. The Javanese are the largest ethnic group within the country, but they’re not a majority. They are about 40 percent, which is sizable. What makes the Chinese historically targeted in ways that other ethnic groups are not is that they’re not indigenous to the island. They have descended through a long extended period of migration. As a result, there is something distinct about prejudice toward Chinese-Indonesians. It was a particularly difficult cross-section that Ahok was a Chinese and a Christian. I doubt that somebody who was Christian, but not of Chinese descent, would encounter quite the same hostility.

What role can President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo play in addressing the rise of groups like FPI? What are his dilemmas?

He’s in a tough situation because he’s this new politician who has risen to the presidency out of meritocracy. Jokowi had his own intra-party problems because he comes from the PDIP which is the nationalist party, but it has been presided over for a very long time by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter. She has not always wanted to share power with Jokowi and she’s often trying to influence and pressure him and other members of that elite. He’s constrained in the sense that he doesn’t have his own support base that is independent of PDIP. In maintaining his presidency and success in policy circles, he’s constrained in his actions to a certain degree.

A lever that he has at his disposal is to crackdown on groups like FPI and HTI for the crimes that they actually commit, taking a zero-tolerance approach to things like churches being burned or people being attacked in their villages. Something else that he could do would be to work with the Ministry of Religion to find provisions in the law that could undergo constitutional review that would increase protections for minority groups and maybe diffuse some of these tensions.

Tiana Steverson Pugh CMC '19Student Journalist

By Gunawan Kartapranata (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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