Rafiq Mahmood visited Alex Aan on Thursday. Alex is the 30 year old Indonesian civil servant who has been charged with ‘insulting’ Islam in an atheist group in Facebook. Aan is in the early stages of his trial – the exchange of lawyers submissions. Up until Thursday Alex was being held in the court cells. He has now been transferred to the local prison in Muara Sijunjung on remand.
The photo is of (left to right) Rafiq Mahmoud, Alex Aan, Roni Saputra – Alex’s lawyer from the Legal Aid Foundation – and the defence attorney (in uniform) keeping a careful eye on proceedings.
Here’s an interview Rafiq did on his meeting with Alex:
Interviewer: I saw you in the court sitting behind Alexander Aan. Can you tell me who you are and why you are here?
Rafiq Mahmood: Sure. My name is Rafiq Mahmood. I am an English teacher and I live in Bogor. I guess there are three reasons why I am here. First, as soon as I heard about Alex’s case, and especially after seeing his interview on Al-Jazeera in the police station in Dharmasraya I wanted to meet him. Secondly, although I am not a lawyer most of my professional life before I became an English teacher was closely tied up with the law and I am particularly interested in human rights and individual freedom. Thirdly, the outcome of Alex’s case could affect us all, including me.
Interviewer: Have you had a chance to meet Pak Aan?
RM: Yes. I was allowed to talk with him for about ten minutes after the hearing today.
Interviewer: What were your impressions of him?
RM: More than anything else his extraordinary gentleness.
Interviewer: Can I ask what you talked about?
RM: He said that the most important thing of all is love. The world is one and we are all brothers and sisters. He was deeply troubled by the news from all around the world of people suffering. Not only in Syria, and Iraq and Afghanistan where people are in the middle of conflict but also in the countries of Africa where people were hungry and mothers were watching their children dying. Also in America there were a lot of people suffering now. These are our brothers and sisters, Alex said, it doesn’t matter where they are from, it doesn’t matter about their country. I asked him, “or what they look like or their belief?” No. It doesn’t matter what they look like or what they believe. The only way to solve the problems of this world is through empathy. We can’t do that if we don’t know about each other. We need education and need to talk about ideas and information freely. There can’t be any inside or outside. We are all one. “Bhinneka Tunggal ika?” Yes. Bhinneka Tunggal ika – Unity in diversity. The most important thing is love and unity and empathy.
I told him that many people from around the world were interested in him and his case. Does he want me to tell the world this message from him? He said he didn’t know whether it counted as a message, but yes, he wanted the world to know that is what he believes.
Interviewer: Did he say anything about his case?
RM: He looked down for a while. He said that he didn’t want anyone to be hurt. He said he was sorry if he did anything wrong. He really didn’t want anybody to be upset. I said, “Alex. You haven’t done anything wrong.” He looked up and a sort of light came into his eyes. He held up his right hand, his finger pointing upwards. “I truly believe,” he said, “that I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Interviewer: You mentioned before that you are interested in the legal aspects of the case.
RM: Of course, as I said before I am not a lawyer and he has a fine and dedicated team from LBH Padang who are doing splendid work for him. I don’t want anything I may say to affect the case and I want to emphasise that this is my personal opinion only.
Alex has been indicted on three counts. Exactly the same evidence has been adduced for each count and no explanation has been given in any of the counts as to how the alleged offences match the evidence.
The first count, under Section 28 of the Information and Electronic Transactions Act is clearly aimed at people stirring up hatred or hostility on the grounds of race, religion or membership of particular groups. The only hatred that has been stirred up (and that not by electronic means) has been against Alex himself. No sane and therefore legally competent person would intentionally stir up hatred against himself. A more gentle, loving person than Alex or someone less likely to stir up hatred or hostility among anyone would be difficult to imagine.
The second and third count under Section 156a of the Criminal Code relate to the so-called blasphemy provisions. Anti-blasphemy laws have no part to play in a modern society. All ideas should be open to challenge and analysis. Human society only makes progress through the free exchange of information and ideas. People need protection; ideas – including religious ones – do not.
The second count is that Alex deliberately and publicly said or did something antagonistic to a religion practised in Indonesia. Now the practices and beliefs of every religion in Indonesia are not only opposed but are openly antagonistic to the beliefs of every other belief practised in Indonesia. Their acts of worship and discussion are open to everyone. In that sense they are public. They are certainly deliberate. If the wording of Section 156a item a. were to be applied to the letter then every single religious act of every religious denomination in Indonesia would be liable under it. The effect would be to shut down freedom of worship instead of protect it. You would have a Maoist or Stalinist state. Indonesia would be turned into North Korea. Religion would be outlawed.
Clearly the meaning of “deliberately and publicly” means the same as crying “Fire” in a crowded theatre – in other words making a statement in a place where it was intended and likely to cause the maximum distress and disturbance and not just making a deliberate statement in a forum that was publicly available.
Alex posted in a page called Ateist Minang. Everyone knows what ateist means (or think they do). If you believe in a god then you are very likely to find anything in an atheist site uncomfortable if not downright offensive. If you pick up a bottle marked POISON and drink from it, you cannot sue the manufacturers if, as was predictable and likely, you fell ill afterwards.
The third count is impossible for an individual to do, least of all someone as marginalised as a supposed atheist in religion soaked Indonesia. 156a item b. prohibits anyone from preventing someone believing in the “one almighty god”. No one can make or prevent anyone into believing or not believing anything. The nearest that anyone can get to that is a state which has control over the education system and has the power to outlaw religious services and to close and demolish religious buildings. It is difficult to see how a powerless individual, least of all someone as mild mannered as Alexander Aan, could possibly commit such an offence.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for that. There is just one other thing I want to ask you. You said that the outcome of Pak Aan’s case could affect everyone, including yourself. How is that?
RM: I live in Indonesia. This is my home and I am part of Indonesian society, even if I am not a citizen. The youth of Indonesia love their Blackberries and their Facebook. They love to talk with each other. Having a minority belief, or non-belief, can make you feel very isolated unless you can communicate with someone who shares the way you think. If we cannot share information and ideas freely, including ideas which may upset some people, then we become trapped, frightened and alone. We have lost the right to be ourselves, which was surely what independence and the struggle to achieve it was all about.
It is no secret that I am no longer a Muslim. That is not my fault. I have done nothing wrong. I just couldn’t believe in it any more. I have made many friends through Facebook and through sharing thoughts and ideas. If this case goes against Alex we will no longer have that freedom. We will be forever listening out for the police knocking on the door in the early hours of the morning and wanting to check our computer files. That is not the Indonesia I love. We must all be free to be ourselves. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika!
The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and the Atheist Alliance International are collecting money towards his case. If you want to support Alex’s case financially, you can send a donation to the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Just make sure to earmark it for Alex Aan. So far, we have raised over £600, including a donation from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science UK).