Indonesian faces jail for saying 'God does not exist' on Facebook

A civil servant who posted “God does not exist” on his Facebook page has been arrested and charged under Indonesia’s draconian anti-blasphemy law. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in jail if found guilty.

Thirty-one-year-old Alexander Aan was taken into “protective custody” on January 17 after being attacked and beaten by a group of men — believed to include government officials — when he arrived for work at the Dharmasraya Development Planning Board in Pulau Punjung, West Sumatra. None of his assailants have been charged, and he has been threatened with losing his job.

Dharmasraya police chief Chairul Aziz told the Jakarta Globe that Aan — who said he was born a Muslim but ceased religious activities in 2008 — moderated a Facebook account titled “Ateis Minang” (Minang Atheists) and had written in an update, “God does not exist”.

Aziz said the key issue was that Aan used the Koran to highlight his atheist views. “So it meets the criteria of tainting religion, in this case Islam”, he told the Jakarta Post, claiming that Aan “triggered unrest among local residents”. Aziz said that Aan declared he did not believe in angels, devils, heaven and hell, as well as other “myths”, and was prepared to lose his job to defend his beliefs.

Dharmasraya regent Adi Gunawan said he has not yet decided whether to dismiss Aan. “I will await the legal process and decide later about his employment status”, Gunawan told the Post, adding, “I told him that there was no place in this country for his beliefs”. Gunawan also said he would be taking additional steps to strengthen religious understanding among civil servants working in his region, although he said he had not yet found any other “atheist civil servants”.

Death penalty

The Dharmasraya district branch of the Islamic Ulema Council (MUI) and other Islamic organisations say that Aan defiled Islam by using passages from the Koran to deny the existence of God. Gusrizal Gazahar, head of the West Sumatra MUI chapter, said if he refused to repent, Aan should lose his job. “I want him to be fired” he told the Globe.

The Islamic Society Forum (FUI) — an umbrella group for several hardline groups that have been behind a series of fatal attacks on religious minorities — said a five-year jail term would not suffice. “He deserves the death penalty, even if he decides to repent. What he has done cannot be tolerated”, FUI secretary general Muhammad al-Khaththath was quoted as saying by AFP on February 2. “It is important to prevent this group from spreading atheism in this country.”

Indonesia has experienced a spate of attacks on minority religious groups in recent years by Islamic lynch mobs backed by hardline groups such as FUI. The country’s judiciary is notoriously unsympathetic towards their victims. In February 2011 three members of the Ahmadiyah religious sect were killed in a mob attack. Those convicted over the attack received light sentences of between three and six months, while one of the Ahmadiyah survivors got six months for attempting to defend himself and his colleagues. Many of the attacks against the Ahmadiyah community have been justified on the grounds of a 2005 fatwa or edict issued by MUI calling on Ahmadiyah to be disbanded because it is deemed to be heretical and blasphemous.

Police now say that Aan my also be charged with falsifying documents because he ticked Muslim when he applied to become a civil servant. “He said he was an atheist, but when he applied for a job as civil servant he said he was Muslim”, Aziz told the Globe.

Aziz claimed that although Aan had expressed his willingness to return to Islam, it would not be enough to escape punishment. “He expressed his intention to convert to Islam but he has not performed an Islamic declaration of faith. Even if he does so, he still can’t escape from justice due to his blasphemous act”, Aziz said.

Online media outlet Padang Ekspres, however, reported that during Aan’s interrogation police officers forced him to pick one of the six state-approved religions, even though he insisted he was an atheist.

Faith crimes

Although Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the 1965 blasphemy law recognises only six faiths: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism. Other religions — Indonesia has around 250 different faith groups — are officially banned.

As a result, people are often forced to choose one of the six when applying for identification cards or other essential documents. In cases where a person refuses to choose from an officially sanctioned faith, the religious status on their ID card is left as a hyphen in brackets or the word “group”, leaving them vulnerable to suspicion and institutionalised discrimination. This creates numerous obstacles, particularly during the birth of a child, a marriage or registering for schooling, and regulations on civil registration can prevent non-recognised faiths from obtaining basic civil rights. In 2006 a public administration decree was issued allowing the religion section on an ID card to be left blank, but this has rarely been implemented, and leaders of non-recognised faiths argue that this still denies them the right to have their faith recognised. Rights activists have recommended that “religion” be removed from ID cards altogether.

Blasphemy, which carries a five-year sentence, is defined under the Criminal Code as “publicly expressing feelings or doing something that spreads hatred, abuse or taints certain religions in a way that could cause someone to disbelieve religion”. By prohibiting any alternative interpretations of the official religions, the law gives the government the right to restrict and ban “deviant sects” and imprison their followers for faith crimes — effectively destroying the separation between church and state.

In February 2011 controversial preacher Antonius Bawareng was sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemy. An Islamic mob that had called for him to be executed later protested the “lightness” of the sentence by vandalising three churches in East Java. In June 2009 the leader of the Eden Community spiritual movement, Lia Aminudin, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for blasphemy, having already served a jail term for the same “crime” in 2006 along with two other Eden Community leaders. In April 2008 Abdul Salam, the self-proclaimed prophet and founder of the Islamic sect Al-Qiyadah Al-Islamiyah, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. In 2006, 41 people were detained on blasphemy charges in connection with a video allegedly insulting the Koran and sentenced to five years in prison each. In the most recent case, in December last year, a court sentenced a US man to five months in jail for blasphemy for pulling the plug on a mosque’s loudspeaker during a prayer reading.

Despite numerous calls by Indonesian and international human rights organisations, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has refused to annul or review the blasphemy law or other legislation that restricts religious freedom. In April 2010 the Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review of the blasphemy law, arguing that it “is still needed to maintain public order among religious groups”.

The official state ideology of Pancasila includes the principle of a “belief in one god”, which excludes both atheism and polytheism. The criminalisation of atheism has its origins in the New Order regime of former President Suharto, which seized power in 1965, killing as many as 1 million communists and left-wing sympathisers and interning hundreds of thousands of others without trial. The New Order treated atheism as an enemy of the state because, like communism, it rejects religion, and atheists had to declare themselves Muslims or Christians or face imprisonment or death. A 1996 Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly decree banning communist or Marxist and Leninist teachings is still in force, and the public advocacy of atheism or “unauthorised” religious views is illegal.

The close relationship between the church and state is also institutionalised in the Religious Affairs Ministry, which aside from being responsible for determining the policies and direction of the religious system, including its higher education component, also holds a monopoly over the highly lucrative and graft-ridden hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Rated by Transparency International Indonesia as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, the ministry, according to Indonesian Corruption Watch, is sitting on as much as US$3.16 billion in deposits obtained from inflated fees collected from the 200,000 or so Indonesians who take part in the pilgrimage each year. In November the ministry was among the worst scorers in the Corruption Eradication Commission’s national integrity survey.

In recent weeks there have been renewed calls from rights activists, moderate religious leaders and even lawmakers for the dismissal of Religious Affairs minister Suryadharma Ali — chairperson of the conservative Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP) — who has been widely criticised for fanning the flames of religious intolerance and using the ministry to garner electoral support for the PPP. There have even been suggestions that the ministry be disbanded altogether for its failure to safeguard and promote religious harmony.

Rallying support

Fellow Indonesian atheists have rallied around Aan, urging him to stand behind his convictions. “Dear Alex, stick to your beliefs. This country has no right to restrict your faith”, Fahd Singa Diwirja wrote on the Ateis Minang Facebook page. “You're facing narrow-minded people, but this is the true Indonesia, a fertile ground for the spread of fundamentalism”, Diwirja said advising Aan to escape persecution by seeking asylum in a European country.

A member of a 600-strong atheist organisation in Jakarta — who declined to be identified over fears for his safety — said the case was a clear breach of human rights. “If MUI thinks that there’s an imaginary friend up there, it doesn't mean people should believe it”, he told the Globe. “Why is it that we cannot criticise religion? This is against freedom of expression and human rights.”

Indonesian human rights groups have reacted with dismay. National Commission on Human Rights chairperson Ifdhal Kasim urged the police to remain neutral and not be forced to act by the majority. “They should protect freedom of expression, instead of listening too much to the majority”, Kasim told the Globe. He also lashed out at MUI, saying the body was not even a state institution. “If everyone does whatever MUI says, the law will be absurd.”

MUI, the country’s top religious body, which according to TII routinely accepts bribes related to the management of halal (permitted under Islam) certificates, has been ridiculed in recent years for issuing a plethora of religious edicts against everything from yoga and Valentine Day to women straightening their hair and premarital photographs. It has also campaigned against Facebook — which it claim promotes immorality and promiscuity — but stopped short of issuing a fatwa against the site, fearing a backlash due to its enormous popularity among Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim population.

International campaigns

Aan has also gained support from the US-based International Atheist Alliance. The group, together with Ateis Minang, has written to President Yudhoyono, calling on him to ensure that the blasphemy allegations are dropped. “This is a law that has been used to promote mob violence and intimidation against those who do not agree with ... vigilante groups”, said the letter, copies of which were also sent to the United Nations and US-based Human Rights Watch.

In a statement released on January 26, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) — a global union of more than 100 humanist and atheist groups from 40 countries including Indonesia — called on the Indonesian government to guarantee the Aan’s freedom and safety.

“The real crime here is the physical assault on Aan, not his expression of his personal beliefs”, said IHEU international representative Matt Cherry. “We have therefore requested that the UN raise Aan’s case with the Indonesian authorities. We believe Indonesia should drop all charges based on Aan’s beliefs and statements and that they should guarantee his safety from the violent mob that attacked him. We also call on Indonesia to change the laws that deny its citizens their right to identify as non-religious.”

In a statement released on January 25, the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) demanded that the Indonesian government support freedom of speech and freedom of conscience by immediately releasing Aan and dropping all charges, pursuing the perpetrators of the physical attack against Aan and repealing the country’s oppressive anti-blasphemy legislation.

“Alexander simply expressed his view that there is no god. In contrast, his attackers assaulted a real person and must be brought to justice”, said AAI president Tanya Smith. “Indonesia's anti-blasphemy laws are an appalling relic from the country’s period of dictatorship. They should be repealed as an essential step towards the freedom of Indonesia’s people and the country’s participation in the modern world.”

AAI has also launched an appeal for donations to help pay for Aan’s legal costs and to support his family while he is in jail. Petition campaigns supporting Aan and calling for his release have also been organised by change.org and the Malaysian Atheists Organisation.

Speaking at a prayer service held to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday in Jakarta on February 5, President Yudhoyono — who on the same day was criticised by rights activists for his failure to respond to a letter sent by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay over the government’s handling of religious discrimination — called on Indonesian Muslims to follow the Prophet Muhammad’s example of living in a religiously diverse society and overcoming differences among people.

“Let us follow the Prophet, his morals and manners as well as his attitude and politeness”, Yudhoyono was quoted as saying by the state-news agency Antara, stressing that Muhammad built solidarity and stressed peace in his teachings. No mention was made of government-backed legislation that discriminates against religious minorities and groups deemed to be “deviating” from conservative Islamic values, or laws that punish individuals such as Aan for exercising their personal beliefs.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia, East Timor and West Papua, visit Asia-Pacific Solidarity.]

Direct Action — March 20, 2012