Jakarta – The government has once again invoked the blasphemy law as it goes after Panji Gumilang, the founder and principal of the Al Zaytun pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in the West Java town of Indramayu. After weeks of highly publicized investigations, police have arrested 77-year-old Panji on the basis of his teaching and practices in his school – one of the largest and commercially most successful pesantren in the country.
The use of the blasphemy law over the interpretation of religion (Islam) effectively puts the police and prosecutors, and later the court, as arbiters of truth. This has happened time and again in the past since the law was enacted in 1965 against sects and denominations that do not conform to the mainstream or dominant version of the religions.
More recent victims include the followers of the Shiite and Ahmadiyah sects, and the Gerakan Fajar Nusantara (Gafatar) – a growing cult that combined Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) regarded as heretical. In the distant past, followers of smaller Christian and Buddhism denominations have also been the target.
Persecuting people on the basis of their faith is not only going against the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, but it also runs counter to the teaching of most major religions. Islam for one says there shall be no compunction in matters of faith. You cannot get more blasphemous than imposing your version of religion and truth on others.
Police are also investigating claims of money laundering as Panji reportedly has over 200 bank accounts under his name, and of terrorism, with alleged links to the Indonesian Islamic State (NII), a rebellious movement launched in the 1940s and banned in 1962. They have not found any evidence so far, but they moved with the blasphemy charge thanks to an MUI fatwa (ruling) which said the teaching and practices at Al Zaytun were heretical.
Panji's arrest was almost a matter of course given the massive publicity on social media supporting the claims of blasphemy, money laundering and terrorism. All these claims, made by some MUI leaders and also a number of former students and teachers of Al Zaytun, spread not only on social media but also on mainstream media, turning public opinion against Panji.
Playing up people's religious sentiments is the easiest way to bring someone down.
We saw this happen with former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who not only lost his reelection bid in 2017 but also received a two-year jail term for blasphemy. The claim of blasphemy played up on social media angered the public, which culminated in massive street protests in Jakarta calling for Ahok's head, a double minority – he is Christian and of Chinese descent.
Trial by social media is far deadlier than trial by the press of the old days. The outcome of all the investigations, and later the court trial, against Panji are almost predetermined by the mass of public opinion.
It is unclear what motivated the police to go after Panji. It is not the first time he has had to deal with the claims of irregularities in the way he ran his school. He survived in the past but this time he has to deal with massive public opinion.
Pesantren are overseen by the Religious Affairs Ministry rather than the Education Ministry, but do not expect any help from either. Following Panji's arrest, the Religious Affairs Ministry said it was moving to take over Al Zaytun, bring in new teachers or reform the current teaching staff, in the name of protecting the thousands of students. The government is moving ahead even before a court ruling.
Several attempts to repeal the 1965 law failed. The last one in 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled to retain the law saying the country needs it "to protect freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution." The case against Panji again proves the contrary.