Blasphemy laws in many countries are supposed to protect religion. But while the one religion may be protected, believers of other religions often have to suffer.
A piece of paper can mean a lot. Without an identity card your privileges as a citizen are often limited. You cannot rent a proper home, and many people will not give you a proper job. Nor do you get financial help from the government. Without an ID card, you cannot get a marriage certificate and your children cannot receive birth certificates. But they need one in order to enroll in school.
To get an ID card in Indonesia, you have to belong to one of the formally recognized religious groups. Ahmadiyah, however, is not a religious group recognized by the state.
In the last few months, discrimination against the religious group Ahmadiyah in Indonesia has increased. Members of the community have been attacked, some of them killed. Protests have been emerging, demanding the government to ban the group, which claims to belong to the Islamic faith. But claiming that there is another prophet after Muhammad, say many, is not in line with Islamic teaching and it is therefore against the country’s blasphemy law.
Intolerance in Indonesia
Al Araf from the human rights NGO “Imparsial” believes the blasphemy law is misused by intolerant groups to discriminate against others. He says when the law was created in 1965, it had to do with politics, which “were focused on power and did not accommodate human rights.” Al Araf believes the blasphemy law is “a law of the past.”
Efforts to have a judicial review of the blasphemy law have been rejected by the Constitutional Court. Therefore, the blasphemy law still applies in Indonesia even though the court acknowledges that the law has many “flaws.” Al Araf believes the biggest problem is not the law itself, but the poor standard of law enforcement in Indonesia.
“The problem lies in how these law enforcers see the obligation to protect minority rights.” Al Araf believes, “They are not neutral and they make themselves part of the group that sees the Ahmadis as an enemy, as a problem. So when there are groups in society that commit acts of violence in the name of religion, they just let them get away with it.”
Blasphemy law in Malaysia
Malaysia is another country with a blasphemy law. For years it has been struggling over the usage of words related to Islam, such as Allah for God and ulama, a noun derived from Arabic meaning a body of religious leaders. Christians, who make up nine percent of the population, have repeatedly been prohibited from using such words, as some Muslims are concerned it might confuse people and tempt them to convert to Christianity. Tens of thousands of bibles that used the word Allah were banned for years before they were released again with the stamp “for Christians only.” Proselytizing Muslims is punishable by prison in Malaysia.
For Charles Hector, a Malaysian human rights activist, the blasphemy law has nothing to do with Islam. He says, “It’s only the government party, the United Malay National Organization, which is fanning this fire about the usage of the word Allah.”
Hector explains that such campaigns have been raised from time to time by certain parties to distract the population from the “real problems” or to win more support from Muslims in the country.
Blasphemy in Pakistan
Ali Dayan Hasan, senior researcher from Human Rights Watch, believes as some states often use religion to justify discriminatory politics, they could also play a crucial role in stopping the abuses by promoting tolerance in society. He says Pakistan is a good example of a state that has a major influence when it comes to tolerance and intolerance. Not long ago, two prominent Pakistani politicians were murdered for opposing the blasphemy law.
Hasan believes tolerance would spread in Pakistani society “if Pakistani law ensured that the state was not part of a sectarian actor, that the state is a neutral arbiter between citizens and an equal protector of citizens and of their rights.” He adds that tolerance cannot spread throughout society “as long as you have discriminatory legislation. That is a situation that engenders abuse and actually makes a bad situation worse.”
Pakistani diplomats have recently pointed out that there is intolerance, discrimination and violence aimed at religious groups in all regions of the world – an insight that has influenced the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to combat religious intolerance. Hasan believes Pakistan could and should set a good example by fighting intolerance as well.