The curse of blasphemy laws

The outgoing governor of the Jakarta in Indonesia, who is a double minority in that he is both Christian and ethnic Chinese in a country that has the largest Muslim population in the world and is 85% Muslim, was sentenced to two-years imprisonment for blasphemy. His crime? Quoting a verse from the Koran which he said that opponents were using to mislead people that Muslims should not vote for a non-Muslim.

The sentence was harsher than that requested by prosecutors, which was a one-year suspended sentence.

The governor was “found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment”, the judge told the court.

The verdict was met with strong protest. Hard-line Islamic groups who called for the maximum penalty of five years said it was too lenient, but Mr Purnama’s supporters said it was too harsh and that he should be acquitted.

Outside the court supporters of Governor Ahok broke down in tears when they heard the verdict. Some hugged each other.

Andi, a devoted Muslim, said she felt heartbroken. “He was such a good man and great leader… He didn’t care what religion people were. Now he has been framed,” she said.

Many here believe the case against him is politically motivated. But a short distance away, the atmosphere among the governor’s critics – a coalition of Islamic groups – was one of anger.

“The sentence is too light, he should have got the maximum of five years, or better still be hung,” said Solihin.

Religious apologists often say that religious people who act badly are not ‘true’ representatives of their religion, the famous ‘no true Scotsman’ excuse. Ignore those religious people in countries where they are a minority and who talk about tolerance and diversity. Religions are a menace but only reveal their true intolerant colors when they are in the majority.


  1. enkidu says

    Not necessarily. We have a blasphemy law in New Zealand, though apparently neither the Prime Minister nor the Anglican Archbishop were aware of it.

  2. says

    Whether they were aware or not may not matter -- there’s a law that requires a religious decision to determine if someone is breaking it. That sounds like theocracy to a degree. Granted, it’s not a big law -- it’s not like giving the vote only to members of one religion, or barring members of a religion from entering the country, or anything extreme like that. I’d say that a country that bars members of a religion from entering is acting a lot like a theocracy. (because someone’s religion is their inner beliefs and the whole thing depends on an observer deciding a religious issue -- are they a true believer, a secret believer, or what?)

  3. enkidu says

    Well, I was speaking (writing) somewhat tongue in cheek. You’re right, of course, and big problems arise when such antiquated holdovers from the past get revived by changes in popular sentiment. The law here is on its way out, fortunately.

  4. Milton says

    Marcus Ranum@#3:

    it’s not like giving the vote only to members of one religion, or barring members of a religion from entering the country, or anything extreme like that.

    …or reserving seats in the national legislature for representatives of one religion, or it being illegal for someone of one particular religion to be head of state.

    Greetings from Her Britannic Majesty’s realm [wry smiley]

  5. says

    Usually someone comes along and says “but the queen’s role is symbolic!” as is the archbishop of Canterbury’s or whoever it is, I forget. But, yes, that is a problem.

    Next up: a theocracy cannot claim to be democratic or republican, as there is a religious preference being shown over the people’s preference. (though I suppose if the people voted in a religious law it’d just be theocratic, not theocratic/anti-democratic)

  6. fentex says

    We have a blasphemy law in New Zealand, though apparently neither the Prime Minister nor the Anglican Archbishop were aware of it.

    Not for much longer I suspect. I think it surprised everyone to learn it wasn’t jettisoned along with the sedition and lese majeste laws a while ago.

    We’ve an election this year, why every politician isn’t racing to show they’re the calm responsible leader ready to sensibly govern by putting the necessary bill forward is beyond me. Such an easy win -- but I don’t understand our poltiicos, especially our oppositions -- they seem to miss every opportunity to demonstrate competence and take the lead these days.

  7. kenal98 says

    Milton @5
    Hello from Her Majesty’s tropical realm of Jamaica.

    Unlike you all in the Mother country, we don’t reserve seats in our legislature for representatives of one religion; though some parliamentary debates do make one wonder. We do unfortunately suffer from that whole “our head of state must always be of a particular religion” thing; we thank you Brits for bequeathing that particular bit nonsense to us and we also thank our political leaders for not bothering to fix that shit after more than 50 years of possessing the power so to do. We are also thankful for the laws you bequeathed to us on buggery and gross indecency which pretty much outlaw ANY intimate sexual contact among men under penalty of up to a decade worth of imprisonment. We thank our political leaders for not bothering to change those laws either because they are scared shitless of pissing off the churches or they agree with them.

    I suppose what I am trying to say is that theocracy is in the eye of the beholder.

    For instance, the Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms has pretty robust sounding language in there which guarantees freedom of religion and conscience. But the Charter like the rest of the Constitution is beset by an odd little legal quirk. Something called “savings law provisions”. How it works is that the Constitution has a series of provisions which “save” (i.e. insulate from a judicial determination of unconstitutionality) certain laws which were in effect before the Constitution itself came into effect. Basically certain laws which were in place before August 6,1962 cannot be struck down as unconstitutional even though they are plainly in fucking violation of the Constitution. So the Charter says that all Jamaicans have the right to freedom of religion BUT people who engage in a religious practice known as Obeah (something related to but not quite like Haitian Vodun) can be (but are almost never even tried) imprisoned because of laws from the 1800s which banned the practice!! We are once more thankful to you Brits for the bit of legal savagery and ever thankful to our post-Independence leaders for not fixing that shit in almost 55 fucking years having the power so to do.

    We have government funded denominational schools. On the bright(ish) side, the Charter says that no student attending any school in Jamaica may be forced to participate in any religious observance or practice “which relate to a religion or religious body or denomination other than his own”. The last bit in quotation has not been tested yet in court but some people think that the way it is worded means that a child could not opt out of religious observances (which take place in ALL schools, even the ones which are not church schools!!) on the basis that she/he is a non-believer!! Is Atheism a religion, religious body or denomination?! When I was attending a Anglican school it was easy for me to opt out of attending chapel because of my Muslim background. And of course every so often we are reminded that too many schools simply ignore the Constitution and force ALL students to participate in the particularly religious observances of that school.

    Then there is the fact that under pressure from the churches, our political leaders used the Charter in 2011 to ban same sex marriage in Jamaica (which was already illegal in Jamaica under the common law). Then there is the fact that the state attempts to push Christianity at every turn; whether its the national anthem which is a fucking prayer (Eternal Father bless our land, guard us with thy mighty hand, keep us free from evil powers etc) or the national pledge which mentions ‘god’ in the first frigging line (Before God and all mankind, I pledge etc) or the fact a few years back one administration announced a policy of ensuring that a pastor was appointed to the board/advisory committee of every state corporation, executive agency, autonomous department etc or the annual national leadership prayer breakfast.

    I know some international observers have said that Jamaica has/had a de facto blasphemy law based on the offence of criminal libel, but that offence was removed from the books a few years back.

    So is Jamaica a theocracy? I would say mostly no, but there are days when some shit happens that I do wonder.

  8. Milton says

    Thanks for the lesson. I was vaguely aware of our colonial legacy of buggery laws (I think a similar situation still pertains in India?), but the details, and much else in your comment, was new to me.
    As to whether Jamaica, the UK, or any of a number of countries is a theocracy, I guess it depends on one’s definitions…and how much of a ‘purist’ one is. Some seem to think you can’t attach a label something unless it is purely and wholly within that category (see the occasional USAian saying “We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic.”).
    I’d say the UK is a monarchy *and* a democracy; as well as partially/having-elements-of: theocracy, aristocracy, and oligarchy.

  9. kenal98 says

    It is true that a lot of the more illiberal laws on the books in former British colonies in the so called ‘Third World’ come directly from our past as colonies. But I would hasten to argue that after nearly 70 years independence (India) and nearly 60 (A bunch of African states, Jamaica, Trinidad etc), we have had ample time to fix these bad laws ourselves. We haven’t fixed these laws because such fixes would be unpopular among our populations. For instance, the Jamaican state is a very long way off from amending laws which ban male/male intimacy because male homosexuality is particularly reviled in our society. No government would consider a repeal or amendment because the largest umbrella group of churches has openly threatened that it will organize against any political party having the gall to discuss the possibility much less make an attempt!!

    You are correct about the matter of labels; it is preposterous to argue that a thing may only have a label attached to it if it completely fits into that category. Things rarely fit completely into one category. So I wouldn’t say that Jamaica or the UK are theocracies in the main but there is some theocratic shit which affects both places. Every fucking time I have stand up at the end of a court session (I am a lawyer) for the marshal to declare the sitting adjourned with “God save the Queen”, I just want to scream “fuck this shit!!”. Of course I don’t because law school was not cheap and well, I have to eat.

  10. VolcanoMan says

    I would say that theocracy is a spectrum. There are a large number of ways a country can move in a theocratic direction. Any law or governmental practise that explicitly grants to or takes away rights from people of one or more religions (or no religion) is theocratic in nature. This is modulated by the amount of power such a law actually grants (both as it is implemented now and as it could be interpreted in the future). Any law that restricts/bans or make obligatory a practise for explicit or implicit religious reasons is a step towards theocracy. So certain Latin American countries and The Republic of Ireland, for example, dangerously restrict or ban abortion completely because of a usually explicit religious objection to it, making those countries quite a bit theocratic, even though most or all of them have secular constitutions.

    But the only type of country that I would consider at the 100% theocratic mark are countries whose founding documents are not secular, and which still apply the religion(s) of their founding to both governance and jurisprudence. These countries have names like The Islamic Republic of Iran, and typically make at least some of one religion’s rites and customs legally binding on all citizens (and visitors, frequently). For example, if you eat in public during Ramadan (in daylight hours), you can get in legal trouble in Islamic theocracies, even if you are non-Muslim.

    The United States is an interesting case here because while its founding documents are explictly secular, and its current laws bar religious interference in government (and vice versa), certain states are actively getting away with privileging and promoting Christianity, and certain Christian beliefs have become the main rationale for various laws (including TRAP laws designed to push abortion providers to the brink without the reversal of Roe v. Wade). In practise then, certain states are a few percent along the theocracy scale, though the laws that put them there are frequently overturned by federal courts based on precedent that comes from, among other things, the presence of the Establishment Clause. I would, however, rather live in a country like Denmark, which is profoundly secular in nature, despite the fact that it has an official state religion, than a country like the USA which is supposed to be secular, but where enough people are Christian fundamentalists that they can get nutjobs elected who explicitly try to turn their states into theocracies, covertly or overtly. Because ultimately, constitutional protections are only useful if people respect them.

  11. Mano Singham says

    kenal98 is right. Former colonies have to live with a legacy of ridiculous laws but what is worse are the attitudes that came along with those laws and are deeply ingrained now. Those attitudes are harder to change than the laws and so those countries are stuck with laws that they could have, and should have, repealed and/or changed a long time ago.

    And sometimes those laws even come in useful for unscrupulous politicians to use to whip up animosity among groups.

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