M. Zuhdi Jasser
In the past few years and especially the past few months, radical Islamism has been accelerating its influence among Indonesians. In May a bomb exploded in Jakarta, killing three and wounding 10. This incident, which occurred one day after the horrific attack at a concert in Manchester, England, was not the first time the world’s most populous Muslim country has experienced terror.
Indonesia has long had a reputation for being a model of Muslim moderation and pluralism, yet its problem with radical Islamism is real. From soaring rates of female genital mutilation to violent protests against authors and artists who offend religious hardliners, the country is undergoing an ugly and dangerous radicalization that will traumatize its citizens and leak across its borders, threatening global security.
Most recently, the country’s first Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as “Ahok,” was found guilty of blasphemy, and sentenced to two years in prison. Those who sought his prosecution have a sinister goal — not to see Indonesia flourish in a diverse world, but instead to establish a global caliphate free of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their interpretation of Islam. Ahok’s governorship and outreach in Jakarta were a clear danger to their societal and cultural interpretation of Islamism.
Ahok abandoned by moderate Islamic scholars
Ahok was accused because of his analysis of a Qur’anic verse which offered a more modern and tolerant apologetic. He claimed that a more modern interpretation of the Qur’an did not prevent Muslims from being led or governed by Jews or Christians. He was not protected and defended by moderate Indonesian Islamic scholars (ulema).
Indonesia, which supposedly is based on a constitution that separates mosque and state, finds itself slipping slowly into the quagmire of theocracy like a frog slowly boiling to death in a kettle of water as the temperature increases daily.
Ahok lost his bid for re-election in April and despite claims by many that his blasphemy case would disappear after he lost the election, he now sits in a Jakarta jail as a troubling example to any who would consider using free speech to counter Islamists.
Islamists are winning on many fronts. Aware that pursuing his own freedom could mean an even more severe sentence, Ahok has withdrawn his appeal of the blasphemy sentence. It is important to note that Ahok was an elected politician and was rich with the social and material capital many Indonesians simply don’t have. Yet he was targeted, has not been able to successfully defend himself, and has not received sufficient public support. If this is the fate of an elected official, what does it mean for everyday people who don’t have his resources?
Popular student killed for his beliefs
Pakistani Mashal Khan was just such a person: a student, a budding poet, a sensitive soul beloved by friends and popular on social media networks. Yet, for online postings some deemed “disrespectful to Islam,” about 20 university students in April stripped him naked in public, beat him, taunted him and tortured him until finally, one shot him dead.
While Mashal was not nearly as well known as Ahok, stories like his are terrifyingly common. Many people in Muslim-majority societies around the world believe, either privately or openly, in punishing those they believe to have insulted Islam.
In the United States, Islamists may not physically lynch “blasphemers,” but they harass, stalk, threaten and bully those they believe have gone beyond the bounds of their interpretation of Islam. This more insidious tactic — of scaring truly moderate Muslims into silence — means that clueless Westerners allow Islamists access to the halls of power, and grant them social legitimacy.
The core of this threat is Islamism — a theopolitical ideology, distinct from the personal faith of Islam, that seeks to establish Islamic states and a caliphate. It’s a system that cannot exist without the censure of dissident voices and the subjugation of anyone — Muslim or non-Muslim — who opposes it. Those who jailed Ahok and those who murdered Mashal Khan are simply taking Islamism to its natural conclusion, and doing the dirty work of non-violent Islamists.
Blasphemy laws violate the very spirit of Islam
We Muslims have nothing to lose by opposing blasphemy laws and the culture that fosters them. After all, we are among its targets, and the failure to address these issues head-on also cultivates mistrust between ourselves and our non-Muslim neighbors. It is my view, as a devout Muslim, that blasphemy laws violate the very spirit of Islam: if faith is professed under duress, but not held by choice it cannot be sincere.
We at the Muslim Reform Movement do not believe that any ideas or religions, no matter how sacred we may perceive them, have any rights whatsoever, but that individuals — those of faith and those who choose to profess no faith — have rights that must be protected at all costs.
We stand in solidarity with Ahok, and with the Mashal Khans everywhere. We call attention to the intellectual, social, cultural, and legal battles being waged for free speech across the planet from Indonesia to the United States. It’s time for all free-thinking peoples to confront the scourge against free speech and individual rights which Islamism poses. To read our declaration and join us, click here.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. is the Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) and is the author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith. On March 20, 2012, Dr. Jasser was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where he served two terms both as a Commissioner and Vice-Chair until May 2016.