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A mentally ill woman, a dead dog and a mosque: Indonesia's religious tolerance under scrutiny

Sydney Morning Herald - July 12, 2019

James Massola and Aisyah Llewellyn, Jakarta – Nurdin, 38, was resting on the back porch of the Jami Al-Munawaroh Mosque in Sentul City, Bogor, when he heard the sounds of an altercation coming from the entrance.

"I sprinted towards the sound to see what was happening," the mosque cleaner told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, "and saw a woman screaming and shouting.

"She seemed furious and said she was looking for her husband who was planning to get married in the mosque that day. She had come to try and stop the wedding."

The 52-year-old woman, a Catholic who has only been identified as "SM", had walked into the mosque and onto holy ground.

But she had not observed Islamic rules about entering a place of worship, such as taking off her shoes and covering her hair and, more shockingly, had entered with her pet dog. Many Muslims consider dogs to be unclean. The mosque's carpets were shampooed after the incident.

A crowd gathered and became agitated. Police were quickly called to the scene to remove SM, while some in the crowd began to accuse her of committing blasphemy. Nurdin says he heard shouts of "Be respectful!" and "Calm down!" from onlookers.

"We told her that there were no weddings planned for that day and that her husband was not in the mosque. As the imam explained to her, he would never perform a wedding ceremony for someone of another faith," Nurdin says.

"But she wouldn't listen. Then she let go of her dog and it started to run around the mosque."

At this point SM – whose husband later presented letters from two doctors attesting to her mental illness – became even more upset. She refused to leave the mosque until the dog was found and returned to her. The dog became lost in the melee and ran across the street, where it was hit by a passing car and killed.

Punishable by imprisonment

This would perhaps have been written off as a very local disturbance except that the Indonesian state saw fit to intrude. SM now faces being charged by Bogor police under the country's criminal blasphemy law.

SM's case is the latest in a string of high-profile cases that have some people questioning whether Indonesia's long history of religious pluralism is under threat.

In Indonesia, blasphemy is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. It is supposed to protect the country's six officially recognised faiths – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Though the laws were introduced in 1965, their use, and the number of convictions, has spiked dramatically in recent years.

University of NSW professor Melissa Crouch, an expert on the laws, recorded just 10 cases between 1965 and 2000, but 37 between 2000 and 2011. Crouch says SM's case is tragic and "one that simply should not happen".

"Certainly the wearing of shoes inside a mosque and the presence of a dog inside the mosque would have been disturbing for those present. But that is nothing compared to the absurdity of bringing charges against a woman who appears to have been affected by her illness and whose behaviour, as captured on video, bore no intention of insulting Islam," she says.

"This case should be seen as a crisis point in Indonesia in terms of the misuse and abuse of the blasphemy law."

Hostilities rising

In August 2018, 44-year-old Chinese-Indonesian Buddhist woman Meliana became one of the law's most high-profile victims when she was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to 18 months in jail. Her crime was to mention to a neighbour that the call to prayer from a mosque near her house had sounded a little louder recently.

A crowd laid siege to her home, 11 temples in her home town of Tanjung Balai were torched, false claims spread on social media that she had asked for the call to prayer to be stopped and she went to jail, though she was released on parole in May.

An even more high-profile case was the conviction of Jakarta's Chinese-Christian former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known as Ahok) in May 2017 for blasphemy.

Ahok's case centred on claims that he had made incorrect statements about the Koran. Ahok used a campaign speech to rebut claims that Muslims could not vote to be led by a non-Muslim. In fact, this is a contestable claim, and the video of his comments, which went viral on social media, had been doctored.

Ahok served two years in jail.

Meliana's lawyer, Ranto Sibarani, says religious hostilities have risen in Indonesia in recent years and the country's justice system has been in crisis over religious tolerance since Ahok's conviction.

"If someone has a mental illness, a judge must send them to a mental health facility for treatment," he says.

"But in cases which involve Islam or members of the Muslim majority, the politics of law all too often comes into play. The truth of a case should not be in the hands of the majority in Indonesia."

Other recent convictions under the country's blasphemy laws include a street vendor who wrote "Allah" and "Muhammad" on his shoes, a man who defended Ahok in a post on Facebook, and a man who likened the prophet Muhammad to a pig in a Facebook post.

'The exploitation of Muslim grievances'

At the same time, other examples of some sections of Indonesian society becoming more conservative abound.

Recent examples include a water park in Jakarta that put clothing on statues that had stood naked for years, Christian graves being desecrated, members of the LGBT community being persecuted, Muslim communities rejecting the construction of churches in their neighbourhood and calls in the conservative province of Aceh for women not to go out at night without their husband or blood relative, and for polygamy to be legalised.

The growing number of blasphemy cases raises questions about the weaponisation of the law to target minority groups, and the rise of so-called identity politics in Indonesia.

In the lead up to April's presidential election, challenger Prabowo Subianto – though not a particularly devout Muslim himself – appealed strongly to the more conservative members of Indonesia's approximately 87 per cent Muslim population.

Joko was accused in the 2014 presidential campaign of secretly being a Christian, even though he is an observant Muslim. But in 2019 he felt he needed to offset the threat by appointing Ma'ruf Amin – a senior conservative cleric and chair of the top body of Islamic scholars, the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) – as his running mate.

Amnesty Indonesia's executive director, Usman Hamid, says Ma'ruf has played a role in the rise of intolerance in Indonesian society in recent years. He testified against Ahok, but has since expressed regret for this. But Usman fears the conservative trend will continue when Ma'ruf assumes the vice-presidency in October.

The root cause of the rise of identity politics, according to Usman, is "the exploitation of Muslim grievances". "Economically, Muslims feel like they are being marginalised, that they are worse off than non-Muslims," he says.

Ranto, Meliana's lawyer, also highlights the targeting of Jokowi as "anti-Muslim" in "ways that we had never seen before" during the 2014 campaign. The attacks on Jokowi continued after he became president and "Islamic groups [have] became more vocal as they pushed issues of race and religion for political gain".

"When there is a dispute between a member of the Muslim majority and a minority group, it becomes a public issue and people are now afraid that if they back a minority individual or group over the majority, they too will be accused of being 'anti-Islam'.

"This applies to the legal system and to Indonesian judges as well, and they have become afraid of releasing people accused of insulting Islam even when there is no evidence that they did so."

Usman agrees the blasphemy laws are being used as a weapon by conservative Muslims. He points out that "of all the cases taken to court, none of them have ended up with an acquittal".

The police's decision to consider charges against SM is "unfortunate" because "what she did was not a criminal act. It has nothing to with blasphemy, or insulting Islam."

100 per cent guilty

Two videos of the incident involving SM, shared with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age by Nurdin, clearly show the woman confronting the crowd and refusing to go to the local police station without her husband and dog.

Rather than apologising for entering the mosque, Nurdin says that SM became aggressive. Police at the scene, fearing the situation would spiral out of control, took her to a local police station and then to police headquarters in central Bogor.

According to Ita Puspita Lena, a spokeswoman for the Bogor police: "Her testimony when she arrived at the police station was inconsistent and we received medical reports [letters from two doctors] from her husband that she suffers from mental illness.

"As a result, the decision was made to move her to Kramatjati Hospital that night for observation."

Following several days of observation, a medical team released a statement that they had found evidence that SM suffers from mental health issues including schizophrenia.

This information was passed to the police, but they are still holding her in hospital while they continue to investigate the case.

The police spokeswoman, Lena, said police are handling the case as sensitively as possible for fear of inflaming tensions within the local community.

Lena refused to confirm if SM is ethnically Chinese, in case this causes race riots.

Police in Bogor are wary that, as with Meliana's case, which prompted attacks on Buddhist temples, the Catholic community in Bogor could be similarly targeted.

In Meliana's case, the North Sumatra chapter of the conservative MUI issued a fatwa, or ruling on Islamic law, against her to build pressure on the police to continue the case. In Indonesia such rulings are not legally binding.

It's understood that no fatwa has been issued against SM, and the head of the Bogor chapter of the MUI, Ahmad Mukri Aji, was swiftly called to a press conference by the police where he appealed for calm, urging the local Muslim community to respect the legal process.

However one of the mosque's custodians, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Herald and The Age that, even without a fatwa, he hopes that the case against SM will continue in order to "satisfy local Muslim worshippers and protect them from these kinds of incidents in the future".

Usman highlights the similarities between Meliana's and SM's cases, and he is pessimistic about SM's prospects. "I would say 100 per cent there will be a guilty verdict."

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/a-mentally-ill-woman-a-dead-dog-and-a-mosque-indonesia-s-religious-tolerance-under-scrutiny-20190711-p526e6.html