Indonesia normally makes international news only for terrorist attacks and disasters like landslips, ferry capsizes and aircraft crashes.
Reporting these tragedies tends to eclipse other significant but less startling issues underway in the world’s most populous Islamic country and third largest democracy.
A judicial review now underway has the potential to make this country of 240 million a more liberal society.
Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law is being challenged in the nation’s Constitution Court by Muslim liberals, backed by Protestants and Catholics, under the rubric of the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Faith. They claim the legislation is at odds with the Constitution that allows freedom of religion.
The reality is different. Indonesian citizens have to carry ID cards that include the holder’s religion. This must be one of six religions approved by the government - Islam, Catholicism, “Christian” (meaning Protestant), Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Those with no religion or who follow another faith are listed as Muslim by default. Visitor guides warn atheists not to disclose their views in any discussion with locals. Questioning a stranger about their religion is standard in even the most casual encounters.
The Blasphemy Law, passed in 1965, was allegedly designed to keep hotheads under control in a country where religious slurs can rapidly lead to violence, and it’s no dead letter. Here’s one example:
Last year in an East Java jail I met and tried to interview a group of 11 Protestants imprisoned for blasphemy.
The room was crowded, noisy and stiflingly hot. There was no furniture. Visitors had to squat on the floor at the feet of the standing guards.
No surprisingly the chat was not a great success. The nervous few who did agree to talk were reluctant to comment on their situation except in whispers.
That wasn’t the situation outside. Mainstream Christian leaders were keen to denounce the prisoners and staged a major public event to fulsomely apologise for their colleagues’ faults.
Stupidity would have been a better term. The men who’d been arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to four years had been in a training seminar organised by the Indonesian Student Ministry, also known as Campus Crusade. This organisation has been running for 50 years, though before this event it was barely known outside the Protestant churches and Christian universities. But this time they made a DVD of their activities. This fell into the hands of a Muslim leader Muhammad Nidzhom Hidayatullah.
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