Is Grace Natalie the next Ahok?

Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) leader Grace Natalie was accused of blasphemy for suggesting that shari’a-inspired local regulations were discriminatory and could result in injustice and intolerance. Photo by Muhammad Adimaja for Antara.

 

On 11 November, at the fourth birthday celebration of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), party chair Grace Natalie delivered her formal address. With the April elections fast approaching, and with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in attendance, the former television journalist and former CEO of Saiful Mujani Research articulated PSI’s three ‘missions’, the third of which was to prevent injustice, discrimination and all acts of intolerance.

 

As part of this third mission, Grace explained “PSI would never support Christianising local regulations (perda-perda injil) or Islamising local regulations (perda-perda Syariah)”. She said PSI would also work to prevent the forced closure of places of worship, a problem that legal scholar Melissa Crouch and others have argued has resulted from increasing majoritarian sentiment in Indonesia.

 

Five days after Grace delivered her address, the secretary-general of the Indonesian Muslim Workers’ Brotherhood (PPMI), Zulkhair, reported Grace to the police, claiming her remarks on shari’a-inspired regulations were blasphemous and, therefore, contrary to article 156a of Indonesia’s Criminal Code (KUHP).

 

Eggi Sudjana, one of Zulkhair’s lawyers, explained that his client objected to three of Grace’s assertions: that shari’a-inspired regulations give rise to injustice; that they are discriminatory; and that they give rise to intolerance. Eggi – who was a key figure in the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and a lawyer for Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab – even contended that Grace’s remarks were worse than those made by Ahok. According to Eggi, the former Jakarta governor had only made one blasphemous remark – “don’t be misled by Surat Al Maidah 51” – while Grace made three.

 

But will Grace’s fate be similar to that of Ahok?

 

On Saturday 17 November, Grace explained the meaning of her remarks. Reminiscent of Ahok’s explanation of his comments on Al Maida 51, Grace, who is Christian and of Malay, Chinese and Dutch descent, found herself defending her remarks and the position of the political party she leads. Less bullish than Ahok, however, Grace calmly stated that PSI was by no means an anti-religion party, but that its position was that religion should not be politicised and that Indonesia’s laws should be universal, impartial, and should not be based on any religion whatsoever.

 

Grace also articulated her party’s hope that Indonesia would return to a “correct” interpretation of the country’s 1945 Constitution – in line with what its drafters intended. Grace noted that the Constitution’s preamble upholds belief in Almighty God (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa) but that the Constitution itself includes no reference to any particular religion and draws no distinction between the (religious) majority and (religious) minorities. Rather, all Indonesian citizens, Grace contended, should be free to exercise their right to freedom of religion and belief in accordance with their own convictions.

 

Grace was essentially arguing for the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression that are guaranteed by Indonesia’s liberal democratic 1945 Constitution. These principles prioritise the protection of religious adherents over the protection of religious ideas and sensibilities. This is a construction at cross purposes, however, with an Islamist majoritarian view of human rights, which replaces the liberal concept of religious freedom with the illiberal concept of “religious harmony”.

 

At its core, religious harmony, as the Constitutional Court articulated in its landmark 2010 decision to uphold the Blasphemy Law (Law No. 1/PNPS/1965), is the notion that public order is maintained in Indonesia by prioritising the religious sensibilities of the majority over the fundamental human rights of the country’s religious minorities. The concept can also be found in two other regulatory instruments – a 2006 joint ministerial regulation on the construction of houses of worship and the 2008 joint ministerial decree on Ahmadiyah – both of which oblige government and society to ensure that religious expression neither blasphemes religion nor disturbs the peace.

 

Grace’s fate is by no means sealed. But the conviction of Ahok, and ethnic Chinese woman Meliana, who was jailed for blasphemy after complaining about the volume of the call to prayer, suggest that this majoritarian notion of religious harmony resonates with the courts.

 

Courts appear to expect religious minorities to exercise far greater caution when expressing their religious convictions or when providing public comment on the religion of the majority. The fact that certain Muslim public figures might share that sentiment is apparently irrelevant.

 

Indeed, in Ahok’s case, three Islamic scholars from MUI, the Indonesian Council of Ulama, gave expert evidence in court defending Ahok’s interpretation of Al Maidah 51. While their evidence failed to exonerate Ahok, the fact that none of the three expert witnesses were accused of blasphemy themselves for siding with Ahok’s remarks arguably reveals the absurdity of Ahok’s indictment and conviction.

 

On the contrary, the court found that Ahok, particularly as a holder of public office, should have known that his remarks about the Qur’anic verse might cause social unrest. As the Institute for an Independent Judiciary (LeIP) notes, however, Article 156a does not prohibit saying something knowing that it might cause offence – it only prohibits saying something with the intent to deliberately insult or to display hostility towards a religion followed in Indonesia.

 

It follows that Grace should not be charged with blasphemy, let alone indicted or convicted. Indeed, for a court to find that advocating religious freedom and equality is akin to having the intent to insult Islam would be, at best, a conflation of her remarks. As the LeIP report also concluded, however, courts typically base blasphemy judgments on three considerations: the opinion contained in the MUI fatwa that invariably leads to the accused being indicted; their own personal beliefs; and public sentiment, coupled with the fear of being perceived as a blasphemer themselves if they fail to convict.

 

As PSI spokesman Rian Ernest told me on 28 November, PSI remains optimistic that Grace’s case will not be escalated. Rian told me that neither Grace nor the party had the intent to discredit anyone or anything and that PSI remains hopeful that Grace’s address will not be used to mobilise Muslims en masse in the name of protecting Islam.

 

For any significant level of mobilisation, an MUI fatwa is, as mentioned, typically required. But with PSI having pledged its support for Jokowi, and with MUI Chairman Ma’ruf Amin now in Jokowi’s corner as his 2019 presidential election running mate, the likelihood of MUI issuing a potentially decisive edict should be diminished.

 

Coupled with the fact that PSI is a new political party and that Grace – unlike Ahok – does not yet wield the political influence of a gubernatorial or presidential candidate, it would be surprising if Grace’s detractors were able to generate the moral panic necessary to trigger the charges that would bring about her political demise.

 

Indeed, as Rian suggested, if PSI’s detractors escalate matters, that would also thrust PSI further into the political spotlight, providing the party with a greater platform to convey its message of religious freedom and equality, something that Grace’s opponents would surely not want to see.

 

But then again, Indonesia is in the midst of a fevered election campaign, and the politics of religious identity are already a central theme, so Grace Natalie probably can’t rest easy yet.