Last month, I visited Meliana, an Indonesian woman jailed for blasphemy, in a prison in Medan, North Sumatra. The security was tight. No mobile phones. No pens. No money. We could only bring some cakes.
I went there with Musdah Mulia, a prominent female Muslim scholar, who challenged the Blasphemy Law (Law 1/PNPS/1965) at Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in 2009-2010, but lost. Mulia gently hugged Meliana, telling her she did nothing wrong and should not be in prison. Meliana sobbed.
Meliana shares a cell of about 30 square metres with about 15 women. It’s crowded. There is enough room to sleep but not to move around.
Meliana is one of an increasing number of people caught up in the Blasphemy Law in what has historically been considered one of the world’s most tolerant Muslim countries. People who want to keep it that way, including Mulia, need the help of supporters in other countries, including Australia.
Meliana’s journey to prison began one Friday in July 2016 when she complained about the volume of the call to prayer from a neighbouring mosque, privately asking the mosque caretaker’s daughter if it could be lowered. Rumours quickly spread that she was demanding that all Muslims stop their calls to prayer in her hometown, Tanjung Balai, about a five-hour drive from Medan.
A week later, Muslim mobs attacked her house, and because she’s Buddhist, burned and ransacked at least 14 Buddhist temples. Her two sons fled with their parents.
“A pedicab driver, who was Muslim, helped my sons escape,” Meliana said.
Afraid of returning to Tanjung Balai, Meliana and her family relocated to Medan. They left their house, their salted-fish business, and their schools. A local militiaman filed a police report against her.
Police apparently tried to slow down the case, hoping that it would go away when tensions eased. But some Muslim groups continued to pressure the police and prosecutors to charge her under the Blasphemy Law. Prosecutors arrested and detained her on 30 May 2018, almost two years after she moved to Medan. On 24 August, the Medan District Court sentenced her to 18 months in prison for blasphemy.
The Blasphemy Law punishes deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognised religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – with up to five years in prison. It was only used in eight cases in its first four decades but convictions spiked to 125 during the decade when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power, from 2004 to 2014. Another 23 people have been sentenced since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014.
Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected three petitions to revoke the Law between 2009 and 2018, declaring that religious freedom was subject to certain limitations to preserve public order. Those limitations, the court stated in its 2010 decision, were to be defined by “religious scholars”.
This year, Indonesian courts have convicted six people, including Meliana, on blasphemy charges and sentenced them to between one and five years in prison. They include councillor Riano Jaya Wardhana, over a Facebook comment defending Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, Wardhana – a Christian who faced a smear campaign, a street vendor, Firdaus, for writing the words “Allah” and “Mohammad” on his sandals, goat herder-cum-spiritualist Arnoldy Bahari, Christian priest Abraham Moses, and student Martinus Gulo.
The highest profile person convicted under the law is undoubtedly former Jakarta Governor Ahok, sentenced to two years in prison in May 2017. Islamist militant groups made his blasphemy prosecution a centrepiece of their ultimately successful efforts to defeat him in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.
Islamist militant groups have pushed hard for these trials. Blasphemy cases are effective tools to mobilise and agitate Muslims. They seek to expand political power via mass rallies and they promote the use of shari’a, or Islamic law, in Indonesia.
The blasphemy cases against religious minorities, as well as state-sponsored discrimination against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, have contributed to the continuing decline in Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant Muslim country.
In Medan, Lian Tui, Meliana’s husband, told us that the family had lost their salted-fish shop and had to abandon their house in Tanjung Balai. Their oldest son did not continue to university. They have had to use their savings to keep their youngest son in a private school in Medan. Lian Tui visits his wife almost every day, bringing her lunch.
Musdah Mulia, who is also a senior member of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim social organisation, is committed to keep fighting against religious discrimination in Indonesia. “We need Islam ramah [friendly], not Islam marah [angry],” she said.
But people like Meliana and Ahok need support from Indonesian authorities and from abroad.
The Indonesian government should promptly revoke the Blasphemy Law and drop the cases against those charged under it. And countries like Australia that espouse religious freedom should keep up the pressure on Indonesia to revoke the law and send their diplomats and political leaders to visit prisoners like Meliana and Ahok.