If we can’t scrap Blasphemy law, simply don’t use it

Over the last few months, two cases involving three accusations have implicated Islam Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab. One relates to a statement he made about Pancasila, which led to Sukarno’s daughter Sukmawati accusing him of insulting the state symbol. Another pertains to his denigrating remark about the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for which he is accused by the Indonesian Catholic Students Association (PMKRI) of insulting christianity and by the Students Peace Institute of hate speech.

The number of cases can be counted as three, actually, by adding his comment of more than a year ago when he criticized a Sundanese greeting. Knowing about the prosecution regarding these cases, I believe there are many who share my mixed, ambivalent feelings. On the one hand is a realization that the law on blasphemy is problematic, so that it should not be used and it should be repealed.

On the other hand is the desire to see Rizieq get the feeling of being in the shoes of his and his followers’ victims, when the weapon he and his followers often use is now used against him.

In fact, Rizieq has reacted in a defensive way similar to that displayed by Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama on trial. Rizieq said that his short remarks were only a few minutes in duration and they had been taken out of context, ignoring the whole one-hour-long speech. He claimed he only criticized founding president Sukarno and did not denigrate Pancasila.

There is a sense of revenge around Rizieq’s prosecution. It has the potential of creating a cycle of retaliation, furthering sectarian polarization and enforcing legal approaches instead of peaceful reconciliation through dialogue when adjudicating disputes. Free speech advocates must avoid using the law and many of them in fact have suggested that even in the case of Rizieq.

To be more realistic, however, what are the alternatives? Consider this: Given the increased awareness among Muslim groups of the law and how they use it even for a trivial thing like a slip of the tongue, avoiding the law while Muslim groups continuously use it is self-defeating. Moreover, the intention of vilification in the case of Rizieq is noticeable.

With these considerations in mind, I — and I believe also many others — find it unjust for Rizieq to be free while Ahok stands trial. Rizieq has been named a suspect for allegedly insulting Pancasila.

Suggesting that the Blasphemy Law must be annulled at the moment is not realistic; it takes, if it is likely to happen, a long time, accompanied by a bold, creative, yet very risky political move.

Given the fact that the Constitutional Court has upheld the law and found it constitutional in a 2010 judicial review, we are now almost at the point of no return.

The main argument of the Constitutional Court to uphold the law in 2010 was that it was still needed to maintain religious harmony or social order. Yet, what has happened on the ground is that it is usually people of the mainstream groups who use it to begin attacking the non-mainstream and the attacks themselves are seen as evidence of social disorder that must be tackled by restricting, expelling, or jailing the “deviant” — that is, those being attacked.

That is the pattern and Ahok’s case is no exception: Their feeling of being insulted is used as evidence of the defamation the Jakarta governor allegedly committed. The law, which purports to preserve order, has ironically become the pretext for disorder.

These objections against the law have been raised by many, but, still, annulling it will meet with big political resistance from the Muslim groups, even if after learning that after reformasi the law has been used five times more compared to during the New Order.

Another option is, thus, not to use it. It has happened in the West actually. Nineteen European states still have blasphemy or defamation of religion laws. The difference is that these laws are rarely used.

Nevertheless, in Indonesia, given the recent political situation, avoiding using the law, as said earlier, will only empower the impunity of the Muslim groups.

The last option is to revise the law. This is precisely what was suggested by nine out of 17 experts who testified during the Constitutional Court’s judicial review, although there has been no clear and firm follow-up. The revision must be made in way that can balance religious harmony and human rights norms and adopt a more objectively measurable, rigorous standard of determining what constitutes a crime.

The director of the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), Zainal Abidin Bagir, proposed in 2013 to follow the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) proposal that has been adopted by the United Nations: that is, to change the frame from prosecuting defamation of religion to combating intolerance and incitement to violence. The revision, of course, necessitates an immediate strong political will from all stakeholders in the country.

Meanwhile, Rizieq’s prosecution, in my opinion, must continue. This will give a lesson to the Muslim groups who insist on upholding the law that the law can be used against them. This move is particularly significant given that rational arguments cannot convince them. As an old Arabic proverb goes: “He who lives in a house made of glass must not throw stones on others’.”

~ This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post, 3/2/2017

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