What do the blasphemy allegations against Ahok mean?

Indonesian police last week declared Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, a suspect for blasphemy, over a speech he gave in which he quoted a verse from the Qur’an. In the wake of the police decision, Indonesia at Melbourne spoke to Dr Melissa Crouch, who has published widely on Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law(link is external) (Law No. 1/PNPS/1965), about the growing use of the law in democratic Indonesia, and the possible consequences for Ahok.

Indonesia is a majority Muslim country but the state officially recognises five other religions. Has the Blasphemy Law only been used to prosecute those who blaspheme Islam?

All cases prior to 1998 were for blaspheming Islam. While the majority of prosecutions have been charges of blaspheming Islam, there have been a handful of cases since 1998 where a person has been charged with blaspheming another religion.

For example, in the Pondok Nabi case, a protestant pastor, Mangapin Sibuea, was accused of blaspheming Christianity. He had established his own sect, and there were allegations of abuse and attempted suicide. In 2004, he was sentenced to two years jail(link is external) in Bandung.

In another case, in 2009, the leader and six followers of a Christian sect known as Zion City of Allah (Sion Kota Allah), were accused of insulting Christianity. The allegations were based on claims that the group instructed its followers not to take communion and forbade wedding ceremonies in church. The Kupang District Court sentenced the seven accused to six months in prison under the Blasphemy Law.

In another intra-Christian dispute, a group of students filed a case against the weeklyTempo magazine(link is external). They alleged that a front page photo published in 2008 – which depicted a satirical version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” with President Soeharto having dinner with his six children – blasphemed Christianity by suggesting an analogy between Soeharto and Jesus. This case did not proceed to trial, as Tempo publicly apologised.

In 2010, the Central Jakarta District Court ruled that the owner of the Buddha Bar was guilty of blasphemy(link is external) for using  Buddha’s name and various Buddhist symbols in the bar.

Some human rights activists and researchers have suggested that the blasphemy charges against Shi’a cleric Tajul Muluk in Sampang, East Java, were motivated by underlying economic disparity and competition for followers between local Shi’a and Sunni groups. Is it common for blasphemy trials to be economically or politically motivated?

Before 1998, many blasphemy trials were politically or religiously motivated. There were two high profile trials of Muslims who had converted to Christianity. There were also trials of some Javanese leaders and students who made jokes about Islam.

Since 1998, however, the reasons blasphemy trials have been brought to court are more complex. Often there are underlying family or community disputes. Sometimes it is a recent convert to Christianity who is seen to be too outspoken in criticising Islam. Other times it is about disputes within a religion over the “correct” teachings and efforts by religious leaders to guard what are perceived to be the orthodox teachings of that religion. In doing so, they also boost their own religious authority and power.

What role is played by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) in driving blasphemy charges?

Most cases are reported to the police by religious leaders, including by leaders of MUI. One of the key pieces of “evidence” that organisations like MUI offer to police is a fatwa that declares a group and its teaching deviant. Although the fatwa of MUI are not legally binding, such decisions appear to have significant persuasive value in court.

For example, MUI issued a fatwa against Lia Eden(link is external), the leader of a small sect, and the fatwa was produced in court as evidence that she had blasphemed Islam. The reliance on fatwa by the prosecution as evidence in court is difficult for judges to deny without being perceived as questioning the credibility of the Islamic leaders or organisation that issued the fatwa.

What kind of behaviour has been deemed to ‘blaspheme Islam’ in the past?

A whole range of behaviour has been declared blasphemous. Groups that teach that praying five times a day is not necessary have been deemed to blaspheme Islam. One person declared himself to be the prophet Mohammad. One woman published her own fatwa in contradiction to that of the MUI. One religious leader whistled during prayers. Another religious leader taught that it was permissible to pray in two languages, Indonesian and Arabic. One group published a booklet that taught that you do not have to be Muslim to enter heaven. All of these actions or words were found by a court to have blasphemed Islam.

How long do blasphemy trials generally take in Indonesia? Is it realistic that the trial would even be heard before the elections?

Blasphemy trials always begin in the lower courts. If convicted, the accused could then appeal to the High Court, and then to the Supreme Court. So it is not uncommon for this process to take over a year.

In Ahok’s case, there may be significant pressure on the courts to deal with the case quickly, given that the elections are scheduled for February. Of course, the courts may try to avoid this situation by delaying the trial until after the elections, in the hopes of diffusing some of the tension.

If Ahok is convicted of blasphemy before the elections, what happens? Can he still run as a candidate?

If Ahok is convicted of blasphemy, then he is no longer eligible to run as a candidate. A person is ineligible to run as a candidate for governor if they have been jailed for an offence that attracts a sentence of five or more years. The offence of blasphemy attracts a sentence of up to five years.

Over recent years, the judiciary has demonstrated that it is highly susceptible to public pressure, even in cases where evidence is lacking. Is a blasphemy trial likely to be fair and unbiased?

Blasphemy trials have often attracted the attention of Islamist groups and large crowds have mobbed court buildings, sometimes calling for the death penalty for the accused. This has often led to concerns that such groups, which often threaten to use violence, have unduly influenced court proceedings.

Given that more than 100,000 people rallied against Ahok in Jakarta recently, it is entirely possible that such crowds might be mobilised again if the case proceeds to court. Any judge who anticipates having to hear the case under such circumstances and show of force is likely to have grave concerns for their own safety.

Are these charges of blasphemy really about trying to stop Ahok running for a second term, or is there a bigger issue here?

Certainly on one hand there are political implications for Ahok, and also for the president. The bigger picture, however, is that since 1998, there has been a renewed struggle between Islam and the state. This has historical roots in Indonesia, but is a debate that remains of critical importance today. This struggle has increasingly seen Islamists resort to law, as well as extra-legal means, to assert their authority.


I have suggested that there is a common principle of “religious deference” observable in Indonesia. The Blasphemy Law is in fact very vague – there is no clear definition of blasphemy in the law. This has allowed the state to defer to religious leaders and allow them to determine what counts as blasphemy. But in some sense this is on the proviso that religious leaders accept the broader authority and mandate of the state.

The courts have shown themselves willing to enforce these religious opinions in blasphemy trials. This notion of religious deference is therefore about the competing claims to authority and legitimacy between Islam and the state. In the post-Soeharto environment, this balance between religious authority and state authority remains open to contestation.

Q and A at Indonesia@Melbourne, 22 November 2016