The Joko Widodo government’s so-called ‘criminalisation of ulama’ was raised frequently at the ‘212 movement’ reunion at the National Monument on 2 December 2018. Photo by Azis Anwar Fachrudin.


The 2019 elections have seen increasing attacks on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo over his “criminalisation of ulama”, that is, jailing Islamic religious leaders. These claims are part of broader efforts to portray the Jokowi government as anti-Islamic.


Presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto has made repeated references to the “criminalisation of ulama” during his campaign events. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose Democratic Party has lent its support to Prabowo, also warned publicly against the danger of “criminalising” religious leaders. A member of the Democratic Party even claimed that, in contrast to Jokowi, Yudhoyono had never imprisoned his opponents during his 10-year rule (a statement that is, in fact, incorrect).


Jokowi has been forced to address this issue several times, most recently at a Muhammadiyah leadership meeting in Bengkulu in mid-February. “Which religious leader have I criminalised?” Jokowi said. “If a religious leader is innocent and he is imprisoned, only then can it be considered criminalisation.”


Jokowi’s statement reflected a view common among his supporters – that what is occurring is simply enforcement of the law. The president’s supporters will typically say something along the lines of: “these are not cases of criminalisation of religious leaders; it is the opposition that has made religious leaders out of criminals”.


While some of those who have faced charges are indeed undesirable characters, it is hard to avoid the impression that many of the prosecutions of Jokowi’s opponents do appear politically motivated.


But in focusing on Jokowi’s so-called criminalisation of ulama, his opponents miss the point. Far more concerning is the root problem that has allowed this to occur: the laws that are prone to politicisation.

How many have been ‘criminalised’?

Among prominent opposition figures, four have been named suspects or convicted. These include Buni Yani (convicted for sharing the notorious video that helped put former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in prison), Ratna Sarumpaet (suspect), musician Ahmad Dhani (convicted), and Bahar bin Smith (suspect).


Buni Yani, Sarumpaet and Dhani were charged under the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions Law (as amended in 2016) and Bahar bin Smith under the 2002 Law on Child Protection. Of the four, only Bahar bin Smith could be considered a religious leader.


After viewing the video of Bahar bin Smith’s horrific (alleged) physical assault on two teens, it is hard to disagree with Jokowi’s supporters: claiming that his arrest is “criminalisation of an ulama” is tantamount to making an ulama out of a criminal.


Other than these four figures, no other prominent opposition figures are currently being detained. It is true, however, that several others have been arrested, several named suspects, and some still have charges hanging over their heads without clear signs of progress in their cases.


The issue of criminalisation of ulama first arose at the time of the mass rallies against Ahok in late 2016. The most prominent example is the multiple allegations against Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab, which range from insulting the Pancasila, to blasphemy, and pornography.


Rizieq was declared a suspect in relation to two of the eight reports against him: pornography and insulting the national ideology, Pancasila. These two cases have now been dropped, according to police, because of a lack of evidence. However, it is also possible that intensive lobbying of President Joko Widodo by leaders of the so-called “212 movement”, of which Rizieq was a founder, played a role. For the remaining allegations, Rizieq remains “reported” (terlapor) and hasn’t gone through a legal process, because of his self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.


Therefore, in a strict legal sense, if “criminalisation of ulama” means imprisoning innocent religious leaders because of their opposition to the government, there have actually been no such cases.


But there is no denying that problematic regulations have been used to intimidate opposition figures, even if all such cases did not result in convictions. And perhaps most concerningly, in rejecting the “criminalisation of ulama” label, Jokowi has sought to imply that the laws being used are not problematic, and their enforcement has been fair and just.


Two recent cases are illustrative. In 2016, 10 people (including Sarumpaet and Dhani) were arrested on charges of treason on the eve of the massive 2 December demonstration. More recently, in mid-2018, police cracked down on peaceful #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ChangethePresident) rallies across the country.


The fact that these alleged cases of “treason” have not been processed more than one year after they occurred, and the fact that Jokowi has said nothing about the silencing of democratic demonstrations makes one question how much Jokowi really cares about law enforcement, and whether he is really committed to democratic norms.

A bleak future

This entire problem has been made possible by the problematic laws being used: the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (the ITE Law), and articles relating to blasphemy, treason and insulting national symbols and the president in the Criminal Code (KUHP). Vague and elastic provisions such as these are vulnerable to being manipulated by the government and politicians to attack their opponents.


Democracy activists have long advocated for revisions to these problematic provisions. But none of the major parties (on either side) have ever demonstrated a clear commitment to revise or restrict their usage.


Instead, Jokowi has complained about the impacts of “excessive” democracy. For example, a few months before issuing an emergency regulation allowing the government to disband civil society organisations, targeted at Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Jokowi said democracy “had gone too far”.


Meanwhile, his supporters, with a few exceptions, have celebrated the arrest of opposition figures and the dissolution of HTI, and made few protests against plans to re-insert a provision criminalising insulting the president when the Criminal Code is finally revised.


Instead of attacking Jokowi for criminalising religious leaders, Prabowo and his backers have the opportunity to offer a more elegant critique about the danger of the government’s undemocratic behaviour and propose revisions to the problematic laws and provisions.


In fact, given that both Ahok and Rizieq were reported under the Blasphemy Law (Law No. 1/PNPS of 1965, which inserted blasphemy provisions into the Criminal Code), it might have been an opportunity for bipartisanship, a chance to finally revise this problematic law that all politicians appear too scared to touch.


In early February, Prabowo’s running mate, Sandiaga Uno, actually promised to revise the ITE Law but he is yet to gain much support from the parties backing Prabowo. Instead, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has called for a bill on the protection of ulama and religious symbols to try to make them immune to criminalisation. This helpfully keeps the problematic ITE Law and Criminal Code provisions in play, should they ever need to use them to attack their opponents.


Democracy and human rights have not featured strongly in this year’s election campaign. Both camps have focused on the predictable issues of economics and religion. Whoever wins, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that there are gloomy prospects for freedom of expression under the coming government.


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