Since the country's democratization in 1998, Indonesia has generally witnessed a great improvement in human rights conditions. There exists a great diversity of religious communities in the country and the vast majority of these groups operate with scant legal restrictions. National political and religious leaders are comfortable having open dialogues about the importance of religion in the political arena. Though the country is approximately 87 percent Muslim, five other religions are officially state-sanctioned. These are Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.
Yet in April, the Indonesian Constitutional Court upheld a controversial law banning religious blasphemy in the country. In an eight-to-one decision, the court declared that the 45-year-old law was in keeping with Indonesia's national ideology. In its present form, the law grants the attorney general's office the power to punish heresy with jail terms of up to five years and also the authority to ban religious groups that "misrepresent" state sanctioned faiths.
The law usually applies to perceived offenses against mainstream Islam. Thus, it has a great deal to do with the preservation of the status quo. Indeed, Indonesia's concerned minister of religious affairs commented before the ruling that if the law were to be annulled, Islam and the Quran could be interpreted at will and that individuals would declare with impunity new prophets and new religions. Over the past few years the law has been used many times. Arrests have been made for offenses as varied as whistling during prayers to trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. In 2007, the Supreme Court sentenced a man to three years in prison for claiming to be the reincarnation of the prophet Muhammad. In 2008, the government actively disbanded Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect that held that Muhammad was not the last prophet.
The decision is a major setback for the groups that petitioned the repeal of the law--groups which included religious minorities, moderate and secular Muslims, and advocates of democracy and human rights. Indonesia still makes extensive use of a council of Islamic advisors, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). Founded during the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1975, the MUI continues to be funded and overseen by the government, although it retains nominal independence. The MUI exerts a great deal of influence; the government often carries out its fatwas (death sentences). The recent ruling definitively affirmed the power of the MUI, which, by some, is considered a paramount threat to the democratic stability of Indonesia. Certainly, the blasphemy law is a check on the expanding pluralism of Indonesian society. …