INDONESIA: Change blasphemy law to avoid abuse

An article from the Jakarta Post forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

By Jony Eko Yulianto

The daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, issued her tearful apology to Indonesian Muslims over her poem which allegedly insulted Islam. She said “Ibu Indonesia” (Mother Indonesia), which suggested traditional songs and women’s appearances were more beautiful than “your azan” (call to prayer) and “your cadar” (full covering veil) had no intention of insulting Islam. However some Islamic organizations continued the planned rally calling for penalties against her alleged crime.

Similarly in 2016 Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), was reported by the Indonesian Catholics Students Association (PMKRI) for allegedly committing religious blasphemy. Rizieq was earlier shown in a video discussing Christmas, which was considered quite offensive to Christians

However, the response of many Muslims was phlegmatic, although the police reported that the FPI leader has violated the Criminal Law as well as the Law on Electronic Information and Transactions. Why couldn’t we see the same level of anger particularly despite the similarly alleged blasphemous speech? Obvious it depends on who made the “blasphemous” statements.

Clearly we are facing the threat of selective anger.

The cause is outgroup critique – and revenge. Last year police, based on Sukmawati’s report also named Rizieq a suspect for insulting Pancasila, a state symbol, and late president Sukarno.

Research on intergroup sensitivity, that is widely studied in social psychology, shows “ingroup critics” are generally received more positively and legitimate rather than “outgroup critics”, even when the criticism is identical. In other words it’s okay if we make that accusation but you cannot – as intergroup critics are perceived to have different motivations than outgroup critics.

Ingroup critics, like how hardliners see Rizieq elaborating on Christian teachings, are attributed with positive motives. Hardliners believe Rizieq genuinely wanted to tell the truth, even it tastes bitter for non Muslims. However outgroup critics, like Sukmawati, are instead attributed with destructive motives. She was percieved to demoralize the group or struggling for supremacy, leading to resistance and rejection. Thus, responses to criticism are said to be driven not by what people say, but why they are perceived to be saying it.

The case of Riziek, and now Sukmawati, are further evidence that the blasphemy law does not protect the primary intent of Pancasila to stabilize a multicultural society. Instead, the law justifies intolerance, allowing the law to be abused for intergroup conflict. Since the feeling of being insulted is subjective it is high time for the government to face these issues more seriously.

We can start evaluating the blasphemy law. We should indeed prevent and address violence based on religious beliefs. But what is important now is a more objective measurable law with more rigorous standards of determining what constitutes a crime. The articles in the Blasphemy Law must provide a balance between religious harmony and human right norms.

Further, we should refrain from wanton criticism As an Arabic proverb says beautifully, “People who live in a glass-house should not throw stones on others”. The case of Riziek and Sukmawati also shows it is okay to be strongly associated with our social identity. But, we still need to be aware of bias as we tend to have selective attention on what we and our group believe in. Being critical and skeptical will prevent logical fallacy among us.
The writer teaches social psychology at Ciputra University in Surabaya, East Java.


The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect that of the AHRC.