Indonesian School Head Charged With Blasphemy Over Unorthodox Teachings

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Indonesian School Head Charged With Blasphemy Over Unorthodox Teachings

Panji Gumilang, 77, heads a school where women are allowed to preach and pray alongside men.

Indonesian School Head Charged With Blasphemy Over Unorthodox Teachings
Credit: Depositphotos

Indonesian police yesterday brought blasphemy and hate speech charges against the head of an Islamic boarding school in West Java, following a public outcry over its progressive teachings.

Panji Gumilang, the head the Al-Zaytun school, was detained early on Wednesday after questioning, national police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan told reporters.

“Investigators took legal action … and he is detained in the criminal investigation agency’s detention facility for 20 days,” he said, according to a report by AFP.

It is unclear exactly what the charge of blasphemy refers to, but the Al-Zaytun school, which was founded in 1996 and has some 5,000 students, takes a decidedly unorthodox approach to Islamic teachings. It allows women to pray beside men and even to give sermons during Friday prayers, and has used the Hebrew language in its teachings. If convicted on the two charges, Panji, 77, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

According to AFP, the school sparked uproar in conservative circles when footage of it surfaced on social media in April that showed women praying in the same row as men. This prompted Islamic pressure groups to hold protests outside the school, one of which in June prompted a significant deployment of police. A group called the Forum of Advocates for Pancasila then filed a complaint to police, which was the reported basis of yesterday’s charges.

“That is very insulting and constitutes deviant teaching,” The group’s leader, Ihsan Tanjung, said in an interview with BenarNews. “It is very disturbing and can cause hostility.” Panji has defended the school, according to Reuters, saying in a recent television interview that women and men were equal according to his interpretation of the Quran.

The use of blasphemy charges to enforce a rigid code of Islamic practice has become  a worrying trend in Indonesia of the post-Suharto years, one that threatens gradually to erode the country’s pluralist reputation. Last year, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch noted that Indonesia has imprisoned more than 150 people for blasphemy, most of them from religious minorities, since the passage of the law in 1965.

Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law, officially known as Law 1/PNPS/1956, punishes deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism – and carries a punishment of up to five years in prison.

Specifically, the case of the al-Zaytun school reflects the continuing influence of Islamic pressure groups, which have both a broad definition of what constitutes blasphemy and the ability to hold massive protests against those so accused. In these instances, police and other authorities come under intense pressure to impose blasphemy charges against a particular target. Courts then face a similar pressure to render guilty verdicts, lest they become targets in turn themselves.

The paradigmatic case of this phenomenon was that of Jakarta’s former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, who became the subject of a campaign of mass mobilization after he referenced a passage of the Quran during a campaign speech in late 2016. Fearful of the mobs that had brought Ahok’s case to their attention, the police brought charges against him, and he ended up spending two years in prison.

Sometimes accusations of blasphemy are directed at non-Muslims, such as the case of an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman from Sumatra who was arrested after she complained to a colleague about the volume of the call to prayer from a neighboring mosque, and was sentenced 18 months in prison. But as the prosecution of Panji Gumilang shows, these charges often they target Islamic sects and subgroups, such as the Ahmadiyah, who are accused of heretical teachings.

While Jokowi’s administration has taken moves to curb the power of the Islamic radicals  – in early 2021, the government banned the Islamic Defenders Front, a notorious pressure group that was central to the Ahok affair – this form of mobilizational politics clearly remains a challenge to Indonesian pluralism.

As Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch told Reuters, “If a Muslim cleric is accused of committing blasphemy against Islam for promoting women’s rights, something must be terribly wrong with both Indonesia’s blasphemy law and the mainstream (clerical) groups.”