The only hatred is towards Alex Aan himself

Here is Rafiq Mahmood’s letter to the editor in response to a 3 May piece in the Guardian on Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan:

I read Kate Hodal’s piece on Alexander Aan (Indonesia’s atheists face battle for religious freedom – 3 May) with great interest having recently visited Alex with his legal team.

I was more than a little annoyed at the impression given by Ms Hodal in describing the members of the Legal Assistance Foundation in Padang as “a ragtag team of young smokers in T-shirts and sandals”. The Indonesian Legal Assistance Foundation (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia) is a charitable organisation set up to defend the legal rights of poor people. They are dedicated and professional lawyers who work extremely hard under the most difficult of circumstances. The Padang branch are open 24 hours and are on call to help people anywhere in the entire province of West Sumatra. Very sadly, as Ms Hodal should know, smoking is widespread and endemic in Indonesia being promoted by massive uncontrolled advertising. It is not unusual for people to work in T-shirts and sandals in offices which are not air-conditioned in a tropical country and casual dress is also a policy in LBH offices so as to put their clients at ease.

Perhaps it did not come across in the article how weak legally the case against Alexander Aan is. There are three counts on the indictment, all relating to an alleged posting on the facebook page Ateis Minang (Minang – West Sumatran – Atheists) of a link to a graphic novel style website covering an incident in the life of Muhammad where he allegedly had sex with his wife’s maid. The website story itself claims to be based on accepted Hadith.

The first count is an experiment to test the applicability of a recent law, the Information and Electronic Transactions Act 2008, which creates an offence for Any person to intentionally and without just cause disseminate information aimed at causing feelings of hatred or hostility either individually or towards groups of people based on ethnicity, religion, race, or between groups. It carries a prison term of up to six years and/or a fine of up to Rp1bn (about £70,000).

The only hatred or hostility evident was towards Alex himself who was surrounded at his offices by an angry mob who heard a rumour that he had posted something on Facebook insulting their holy prophet. He was “rescued” by the police who arrested him and charged him after consulting the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI). No one in their right mind (and therefore legally competent) goes out of their way to make people hate or be hostile to themselves. The postings were in an atheist page so it is hardly likely that someone would be surprised and shocked to find items there offending the sensibilities of believers. Alex is not the sort of person to stir up hatred or hostility between anyone. Indeed, having met him, my impression is that he would make peace between a spider and a fly if he could.

Section 156a was an amendment to the Indonesian Criminal Code which was enacted during the anti-communist period in the 1960s. It states: A person shall be liable to a maximum term of imprisonment of five years who deliberately and publicly expresses feelings or commits acts: a. which are principally in the nature of being at enmity with, abusive of or desecrating a religion adhered to in Indonesia; b. with the intention to make a person not adopt a religion based on the belief in an almighty god.

The clause is unusual in that there is no conjunction between the sub-clauses a and b. It is not clear whether the offence requires both elements or either element is sufficient. There is no “and” or “or”.

The second count, based on sub-clause a. of Section 156a, is the one usually used to incarcerate people with unusual religious ideas, such as that prayers should be said in the vernacular rather than Arabic. Various prophets and founders of new cults have been locked up recently for terms of imprisonment of three to four years, although none yet for atheism. Of course all the religions in Indonesia deliberately and publicly express feelings and commit acts which are at enmity with, abusive or and desecrating every other religion during their acts of worship. If Alex, by posting, linking or sharing something in an Atheist Facebook page is deliberately and publicly expressing such feelings so is every religion, including Islam, in Indonesia. If taken strictly by the letter this clause would have the effect of shutting down every religion in the country, hardly what the drafters intended.

The third count, based on sub-clause b., really is related to the McCarthyite fears of the time it was drafted. No one can force anyone to believe or not believe anything. The only people who could hope to attempt that would be a state or political entity, such as an autonomous province, who had control over the media, the education system and could impose controls over public worship and buildings. Alex, belonging to one of the most marginalised groups in Indonesia, atheists, is the least powerful person to attempt any such thing.

Fortunately it is unlikely that Alex would receive a cumulative sentence since it is clear that the counts are regarded as alternatives and are based on precisely the same evidence. The maximum would, therefore, be six years.

Alex, when I saw him, affirmed with vigour that he believed he had done nothing wrong and, if convicted, would appeal to clear his name. All of us who support Alex and the right of all of us to express ourselves freely will not give up the fight. It is true that there is a lot of local conservative pressure on the District Court yet we still hope that sense and justice may yet prevail. If not the fight is not over. The motto of Indonesia is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – Unity in Diversity. That is something worth fighting for.