When Jozeph Paul Zhang, an Indonesian-Chinese Christian evangelist, uploaded a video on YouTube last month from a country in Europe, he deliberately used provocative language to attract attention.
The 40-year-old claimed he was the "26th Prophet" and had a mission to correct "heresies".
Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, is revered by adherents as the 25th and final prophet, so Zhang's video went viral and provoked outrage in Indonesia, where Muslims make up 90 per cent of the 270-million population.
Several Muslim clerics publicly called for Zhang's murder, sympathisers of the Islamic State terror group insisted he be beheaded, and Indonesian politicians scrambled to deal with the fallout.
After Zhang, whose legal birth name is Shindy Paul Soerjomoelyono, was reported to the police for "hate speech" and "blasphemy against Islam", authorities declared him a suspect and vowed to enlist Interpol's help to track him down.
In an interview with media outlet Deutsche Welle after news of the scandal broke, Zhang said he merely wanted to draw attention to the Indonesian government's discrimination against minority groups.
He claimed the authorities were betraying Indonesia's state ideology of "Pancasila", which promotes unity amid Indonesia's diversity of cultures and religions, and also alleged that 200 churches had been forcibly shut under the current administration.
President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014, has urged tolerance among citizens but his government has witnessed the growing dominance of hardline groups in politics and society.
Zhang said members of minority groups "only dare speak in whispers" of being discriminated against, fearing they would end up in jail like Apollinaris Darmawan, a confessed Indonesian atheist who was arraigned twice for "defamation against Islam" due to his posts on social media.
Darmawan was last arrested in August 2020 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment at his trial. "There is no tolerance in Indonesia. It's just a facade," Zhang told Deutsche Welle.
While some minority groups in Indonesia have supported Zhang for speaking up for them, others have been critical.
PGI, an organisation that represents Protestant churches in Indonesia, disowned Zhang and questioned his claim that he was ordained.
Several ethnic Chinese commentators despaired that their community would again be targeted. Indonesian-Chinese make up about 1.5 per cent of the population, but have long faced suspicions over their economic success, with this compounded by greater investment in Indonesia by China in recent years.
Philipus Jonathan Eko, 33, a Jakarta resident, said he understood why Muslims would be offended by Zhang's comments about Islam. "Even in his clarification, he was unapologetic," he said.
The controversy has cast the spotlight on an area of concern for Indonesia's minority groups – the country's lopsided implementation of its blasphemy law.
Indonesian-Muslims have long been extremely wary of what they call "Kristenisasi", or Christianisation.
In 2016, the country's highest Islamic body, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), claimed that Indonesia had the largest number of Muslims converting to Christianity in the Islamic world, alleging that 2 million Muslims were being "Christianised" every year.
WF Wertheim, a Dutch expert on Indonesia, once described Indonesia's Muslims as "a majority with a minority mentality".
This mentality has led to the government facing pressure to clamp down on non-Muslims who are seen to be challenging Islam.
To do this, they have used the country's blasphemy law, first promulgated in 1965, which makes it illegal to insult or prevent a person from practising any of the country's six officially recognised religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Protestantism and Islam. The maximum punishment is five years in prison. But virtually all cases are centred on Islam.
Three years ago, amid pressure from hardline Islamists, a Jakarta court found Basuki "Ahok" Purnama – an Indonesian-Chinese Christian who was the region's governor at the time – guilty of blasphemy against Islam over off-the-cuff remarks he made while campaigning for re-election.
In Zhang's case, police declared him a suspect within days of the video emerging, while at around the same time, Hindu organisations in Indonesia reported a university lecturer to the police for blasphemy but no arrest was made.
The lecturer, Desak Made Darmawati, a Hindu who converted to Islam, had in a video described her former faith as "a religion of the demons". It was widely shared on Indonesian social media.
Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher at the Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the blasphemy law was known among activists as "elastic" because it could be "stretched" to suit the needs of the state.
"In its more than 50 years of history, the law has never been used to convict in any case when the claimant was non-Muslim," he said. "It has always been used against minority groups."
There were only eight convictions under the blasphemy law during the 32-year rule of President Suharto. Under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who governed from 2004 to 2014, 125 people were sentenced using the law. Under Widodo's administration, more than 20 people have been convicted since 2014.
There are concerns that Indonesia may expand the blasphemy law to include more offences – such as making noise near a house of worship and insulting a cleric while he is leading a ritual – as part of its attempt to overhaul its Dutch-derived Criminal Code.
An effort by Indonesia's parliament to debate changes to the code ended in 2019 amid public protests over other proposed clauses to outlaw sex outside marriage and penalise those who criticise the president's honour.
Poor choice of words?
Zhang, who spoke to This Week in Asia from an undisclosed location thought to be somewhere in Europe, defended his action by saying he wanted to highlight the government's lopsided use of the blasphemy law.
"I admit that what I said qualifies as blasphemy under Indonesian law, but so many Muslims have done the same [against minority religions] and got away with it," he said.
Underlying Zhang's brashness is his experience growing up as an Indonesian-Chinese Christian, essentially a double minority.
Speaking to the Indonesian-language Jawa Pos newspaper last month, Zhang recounted the several instances in which he was taunted with the word "Cina (Chinese)" when he was a little boy. When he confronted his bullies, they beat him up, he said.
But he always tried to stand up for himself. As a result, one day, his house was surrounded by relatives of his bullies who almost killed his father for protecting him, he told the newspaper.
As a young man, Zhang's zeal for evangelising was already pronounced. He was in the habit of sharing his faith with non-Christians, including handing out pamphlets at public places such as train stations. Zhang recalled how he was often verbally abused or had stones thrown at him during these trips.
Aan Anshori, a young Muslim intellectual who heads the JIAD (Islamic Network Against Discrimination) group, said that he respected Zhang's democratic right to free speech, even if it was critical of his religion.
"In Zhang's case, the government should have tried to educate the public, particularly the Muslim majority, about being mature in a democracy by not giving in to demands to prosecute Zhang," he said. "The blasphemy law is actually anti-constitutional since our constitution guarantees freedom of speech."
Anshori said while he thought there was nothing wrong with the essence of Zhang's statements. But what many Indonesians took exception to was the brash manner in which he had made his opinions known, he said.
Asep Abro Ruhyat, 56, an Indonesian who lives in Berlin, agreed that Zhang's speech was too sensational.
"I have no bone to pick with the gist of his rant, but in many ways he is just the same as controversial Muslim preachers like Abdul Somad and Haikal Hassan who peddle their message by rubbishing other people's religions," he said, in reference to popular Muslim preachers known for their fiery sermons that resonate with a growing cultural movement of people embracing a stricter form of Islam.
Anshori said he believed the suggested new blasphemy laws would be challenged and that even the threat to prosecute Zhang could turn out to be a paper tiger.
"I see it as largely a political move – a token gesture – to calm the nerves of the Muslim majority. It's difficult to imagine how we can extradite Zhang and the issue may go away from public domain eventually, along with the fervour for his arrest," Anshori said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/lifestyle-culture/article/3133561/facade-tolerance-indonesias-blasphemy-law-unfair