Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas became the target of an angry campaign by religious fundamentalists after he issued a decree to regulate the volume on loudspeakers at mosques around the country.
Gus Yaqut, as he is affectionately known, signed the decree on Feb. 21, asking mosques to use loudspeakers indoors and to limit the volume to 100 decibels when using them outside for the call to prayer.
Many Indonesians have complained about increasingly loud calls to prayer that disturb the work, leisure and sleep of people who live or work nearby. CNN Indonesia compared 100 decibels to the noise created by a jet plane taking off 300 meters away.
A Religious Affairs Ministry official said they had consulted the Indonesian Ulama Council as well as the Indonesian Mosque Council in drafting the decree. But the decree immediately drew protests from many Islamic groups. The Prosperous Justice Party, the Indonesian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, opposes the decree, contending that the government should not regulate loudspeakers. It condemned Gus Yaqut for an interview in which he compared the call to prayer with the volume created by barking dogs.
Street protests followed in some cities, with protesters trampling Gus Yaqut’s photo. One poster depicted him with the head of a dog.
Roy Suryo, a politician from the Democrat Party, filed a report against Gus Yaqut with the Jakarta police for blasphemy, claiming that the comparison to dogs was an insult to Islam. Azlaini Agus, a politician in Pekanbaru in central Sumatra, where Gus Yaqut gave the interview, also reported him to the local police.
Nothing in the Quran or Islamic law refers to loudspeakers, a relatively recent addition to the call to prayer in the Islamic world, including in Indonesia.
Gus Yaqut himself comes from a prominent Muslim family in Rembang in Central Java and is a member of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim group. His Muslim credentials are well known, as he used to head the Ansor Movement, a youth wing of the group. His older brother, Yahya Cholil Staquf, is chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama.
Since its inception in 1965, Indonesia’s blasphemy law is often used to stifle free speech and differing viewpoints.
In 2010, an American expat was jailed for five months for unplugging a mosque loudspeaker on Lombok Island. In 2016, after a Buddhist woman complained about the volume of a neighboring mosque in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, Muslim mobs attacked her house, and burned and ransacked 14 Buddhist temples.
In 2017, former Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama, a Christian, was sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges after a politically motivated smear campaign that included a rally attended by more than 200,000 people.
More than 150 people have been convicted under the blasphemy law. It is most commonly used against minorities who are deemed to have criticized Islam. But as the case against Gus Yaqut shows, no one is immune.
In 2009, Abdurrahman Wahid, a former president and chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama, said that the blasphemy law should be repealed because it had been used as a political weapon and to incite anger among Muslims. Unfortunately, his fears are now being played out.
Because it is used to suppress speech and is applied arbitrarily, Human Rights Watch has long called for repeal of the blasphemy law, which has no place in a democracy. Indonesia should rid itself of this toxic law.