Photo by Nanien Yuniar for Antara.


Revered journalist and writer Arswendo Atmowiloto died on 19 July aged 70 after a short illness. I came to know Arswendo through my research on blasphemy and human rights in Indonesia. While about 90 people have been convicted of blasphemy since Soeharto’s demise on 21 May 1998, only nine people were convicted during the dictator’s nearly 32-year rule. Arswendo was one of them.


Arswendo’s conviction stemmed from the publication of a survey by the Kompas-owned magazine Monitor – of which Arswendo was editor in chief. On 15 October 1990, Monitor published a survey titled “Here We Are: 50 Figures Most Admired by Our Readers”. The survey asked Monitor readers who their idol was and why.


This seemingly innocuous survey was considered by many to be blasphemous because then-President Soeharto ranked first, while Prophet Muhammad was only eleventh. Adding to the controversy was the fact that Arswendo himself came in one place above Muhammad.


I interviewed Arswendo in 2018. We discussed his conviction, his views on the blasphemy conviction of former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the broader issue of blasphemy in contemporary Indonesia, and his life after release from five years in jail. To the best of my knowledge, this was the final interview Arswendo gave on blasphemy.

Legal (un)certainty

Blasphemy is regulated by Law No. 1/PNPS/1965, and was incorporated into the Criminal Code (KUHP) as Article 156a.


Arswendo’s primary concern with the Blasphemy Law was that it offers no definition of what actually constitutes blasphemy. Arswendo said he believed that the Law was being used in the same way today as at the time of his trial, and that it was “still biased” against the accused. Almost any conduct, he said, can be manipulated so it appears to have “insulted religion”, thereby falling within the ambit of the Law. This is because the Blasphemy Law provides “no point of reference” as to what actually constitutes blasphemy.


“Is this what it means to insult? Comparing the Prophet Muhammad with other people?” This lack of clarity and legal certainty, Arswendo said, meant that Article 156a was “extremely vulnerable” to manipulation.


Arswendo recalled a conversation with one of his defence lawyers, Subekti, who was later appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court and was involved in the drafting of the Blasphemy Law itself. Subekti told him that the Law was never intended to convict someone for doing what Arswendo had done as editor in chief of Monitor.


Also in Arswendo’s corner was former President Abdurrahman Wahid, then leader of Nahladtul Ulama. At the time, Indonesia’s peak Islamic body, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), even called Wahid in to explain his insistence that Arswendo’s actions were not blasphemous.


In blasphemy cases, law enforcement officials and the courts typically tend to be more concerned with whether the conduct of the accused has created “social unrest” (keresehan di masyaratkat) than what he or she actually said. Indeed, this was part of the reasoning of the Constitutional Court in its 2010 decision to uphold the Blasphemy Law.


Arswendo, who was part of the group of applicants who challenged the statute’s constitutional validity in 2009 and 2010, agreed with this, saying:


“If I’m not mistaken, at the time, the reason [I was brought to trial] was because [my actions] resulted in social unrest, so the attorney-general and general prosecutor (kejaksaan) and police took action.”

Ahok’s case

Arswendo also saw no difference between his case and that of Ahok. He said:


“What is meant by insult? What is meant by ‘giving rise to discord’ (menimbulkan perpecahan)? What is that? Why don’t they create a list? For example, I’m not allowed to compile a list based on polling of the popularity of the Prophet Muhammad, or Ahok isn’t allowed to quote [Surah] Al-Ma’ida [51]… It’s all [about] politics.”


Arswendo was convinced that the judges had already made up their minds about Ahok before hearing all the evidence. He said the verdict in Ahok’s case reminded him of something his lawyer told him at the time of his trial – that he had been prosecuted simply because he had had the nerve to publish those survey results.


From a legal perspective, however, having the nerve to publish such results, or cite a Qur’anic verse, does not reveal an intent to antagonise, abuse or sully a religion adhered to in Indonesia, as the Blasphemy Law and article 156a require. The fact that intent does not appear to be a significant consideration for judges in blasphemy trials of course reveals the politicised nature of most (if not all) blasphemy trials and convictions in Indonesia.


In 1989, Arswendo had converted to Catholicism from Islam, primarily because his wife, who he married in 1971, was Catholic. Arswendo didn’t rule out that his religious conversion might have contributed to the outrage over the survey results, but he didn’t think it particularly likely.

Ahok and Sukmawati

Arswendo also commented on the case of Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, the third daughter of President Soekarno, who briefly became the centre of her own blasphemy scandal after she recited a contentious poem comparing traditional Javanese culture with Islamic culture at Jakarta Fashion Week in late March 2018. Despite complaints from certain members of Indonesia’s radical Islamist fringe, the police never officially charged Sukmawati with blasphemy.


For Arswendo, Ahok and Sukmawati’s cases were “more or less the same”. But there had never been any public explanation as to why Sukmawati’s poetry recitation was not considered blasphemous, while Ahok’s remarks were. This demonstrated the danger of the Blasphemy Law, Arswendo said. The fact that Sukmawati’s case was never escalated was simply because the political climate didn’t demand it.

Life after prison

I also asked Arswendo to reflect on his life after his release from jail. He described the entire experience as “saddening”, revealing that his employer at the time, Kompas, had fired him before he was even sentenced. The government-backed journalists’ association (PWI) also disassociated itself from him, meaning he could no longer work as a journalist or editor after he was released.


This did not, however, end Arswendo’s appetite for writing. Indeed, while in prison, Arswendo wrote a novel, which was later published under a pseudonym. He also continued to write for media outlets under a pseudonym but was repeatedly reminded that any further allegedly blasphemous behaviour would result in an end to these under-the-table arrangements.


Offering a final comment on the issue of blasphemy in Indonesia, Arswendo said:


“Why can’t this matter [of blasphemy] be settled? That’s all. By settled I mean Article 156a should be permitted to remain, but with an elucidation – at a minimum, with parameters so the people know [what constitutes blasphemy].”


This seems like good logic. Rest in peace, Pak Wendo.



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