Debate Over Indonesian Religion Bill Heats Up

Jakarta Globe, Indonesia
Ulma Haryanto & Anita Rachman | October 24, 2011

Rahmat Rahmadijaya, an Ahmadiyah leader living in Jatibening, Bekasi, has been anxious for a few weeks now.

At first he didn’t want to talk, but he later changed his mind. “If I speak out, maybe I can get people to support us, to pray for us,” he told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.

He is anxious because of a decree signed by Bekasi’s acting mayor, Rahmat Effendi, that bans the Muslim minority group from conducting activities that may be interpreted as an effort to spread its beliefs.

The ban went into effect on Oct. 13. Since then, Rahmat and other members of the Ahmadiyah community in his neighborhood have started holding Friday prayers under tight security from Bekasi Police.

“Our second Friday prayers went relatively normally, about 60 people joined in,” said another resident, Abdul Rohim.

“We don’t know about next week, though.”

In Need of a Law?

The fear appears to be justified. Several violent incidents have targeted Ahmadiyah communities throughout the country.

One of the worst — an attack in February by a mob of at least a thousand on an Ahmadi group in Cikeusik that left three members of the sect dead — spurred a discussion over a long-delayed bill on religious harmony.

At the time, the bill was presented by lawmakers as a long-term solution to the religious conflicts plaguing the country and to give a stronger legal basis to joint ministerial decrees that regulate religious matters in the country today.

Last week, Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Agung Laksono, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi reiterated their endorsement of the bill.

“We need a regulation that contains both conflict prevention and solutions to the problems obstructing religious harmony,” Agung said.

The current draft of the bill regulates various religious rights and obligations such as proselytizing, celebrating religious holidays, constructing places of worship, funerals and religious education.

“The original version of the draft, written by the staff of the Religious Affairs Ministry, dated back to 2003,” said Ismail Hasani, a researcher at Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy. “The current draft is more or less the same.”

The bill is part of the 2011 National Legislation Program (Prolegnas), or the list of priority bills for the year, but it has been delayed as the House of Representatives has turned its attention to other bills.

Will It Help?

Setara deputy chairman Bonar Tigor Naipospos, an advocate of pluralism, isn’t looking forward to the religious harmony bill being passed into law.

He said it would only legitimize existing discriminatory regulations within the 1965 Anti-Blasphemy Law and a 2006 joint ministerial decree on places of worship, which has contributed to a number of conflicts.

In Bogor, for instance, Mayor Diani Budiarto has used the ministerial decree to continue to defy a Supreme Court ruling ordering the reopening of the GKI Yasmin Church.

The 2006 joint ministerial decree requires 60 signatures from local residents in support of the construction of a place of worship, but the mayor has claimed that GKI Yasmin forged the signatures.

The tension in Bogor came to a head two weeks ago, when churchgoers and public order officers (Satpol PP) clashed in front of the sealed building.

West Java Police are now investigating complaints filed by both camps against each other. A Satpol PP chief is accusing GKI Yasmin churchgoers of hitting him in the jaw and knocking him unconscious, while the church is countersuing Satpol PP for disrupting its service.

Bonar said the bill would be unhelpful to the cause of the Ahmadiyah as well. “The spirit of the law that condemns their belief, the 1965 Anti-Blasphemy Law, is still incorporated in the bill,” he said.

Fears and Worries

Abdul Kadir Karding, chairman of House Commission VIII, which oversees social affairs, urged the public to think positively about what the lawmakers in the commission were doing.

He said the House wanted to give protection to minorities.

“For instance, when there is a non-Muslim person living in a Muslim community, he or she has the right to use the same public cemetery like the majority,” he said. “In the Cikeusik case, we want this future law to ensure that the guilty will get punished.”

Activists were outraged that most of the 12 people convicted in the Cikeusik attack were sentenced to just six months in jail — the same sentence given to one of the Ahmadi victims convicted of violent assault and disobeying police officers who had ordered him and about a dozen other Ahmadis to evacuate ahead of the attack.

Karding acknowledges that unless the bill is carefully constructed, it risks becoming a tool for “hard-line groups to limit freedom of religion.”

Fajar Riza Ul Haq, executive director of the Maarif Institute, asked the House to be more open in the drafting and deliberation.

He said it should learn from the recently passed Intelligence Law, when both the House and government ignored public criticism.

One critical point, he said, was how the House would define “harmony” in the bill. “They should have drafted a religious freedom bill instead of this one.”

Harmony vs Freedom

Harmony, for instance, could be used to justify the recently issued Bekasi ban on the Ahmadiyah’s activities, which states the ban is needed to “preserve and maintain the stability of conduciveness and security, peace and order in Bekasi.”

Bonar views the religious harmony bill as the “middle way” after the Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review of the 1965 Anti-Blasphemy Law.

“Because even though the court rejected the request because the law itself is not unconstitutional, it stated in its ruling that a revision or an update of the law was needed,” Bonar said.

“Principally, we can’t agree with the law since it reflects the fact that this government thinks religious harmony is something that should be engineered, rather than grow naturally.”

If the government really wanted “harmony,” Fajar said it should start addressing the prevalence of hate speech.

In Jatibening, just before the ban on the Ahmadiyah was issued, members of the notorious hard-line group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were in the area.

“They came to Jatibening and intimidated people, telling us to shut down our mosque about three weeks ago,” Rahmat said.

Additional reporting by Vento Saudale

Copyright 2010 The Jakarta Globe

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