Policing religion? There’s an app for that

Policing religion? There’s an app for that

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A new app called Smart Pakem was released by the Indonesian Attorney General’s Office(link is external) (AGO) late last month. Available for public download, the app(link is external) provides a way to report, list and monitor religious groups deemed to deviate from the teachings of the six religions officially recognised by the state.

The app has triggered strong criticism from many human rights organisations because it targets religious heresy, with a focus on unorthodox interpretations of official religions, and indigenous beliefs (aliran kepercayaan).

The development continues the worrying trend of increasing enforcement of the Blasphemy Law (known officially as Law No. 1/PNPS/1965 on the Prevention of Religious Abuse and/or Defamation, which inserted a blasphemy provision into the Criminal Code). But with regard to indigenous beliefs, it also sends mixed signals about how the government handles minority belief communities — especially since it follows a welcome victory of wider civil recognition for indigenous beliefs in the Constitutional Court last year.

Promoting harmony or conflict?

Despite the ongoing controversy, the app (launched on 22 November and last updated on 6 December) is still available for download. It seems to have been launched prematurely, as it is not fully functional. Yet at present, under the “Religion” (Keagamaan) menu it already lists as deviant one Ahmadiyah and three Shi’a organisations, all of them legal and registered, along with a (hypothetical?) organisation called “Wahabi” and two organisations that were banned as deviant in the past: Gafatar and Lia Eden’s Kingdom of God. Under “Beliefs” (Kepercayaan) it lists a dozen legal organisations.

The AGO(link is external) says the app’s main function is to educate the public about deviant religious groups, and to prevent them from following unorthodox teachings. It also provides an outlet for people to report what they deem to be heresy or deviancy, rather than taking the law into their own hands. The AGO argues that the app could help it fulfil its duty to more efficiently monitor “deviant” and indigenous belief groups, and help maintain peace and interreligious harmony.

But the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI)(link is external) and the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM)(link is external) say that the opposite is more likely to be the case. Rather than creating harmony, the app, by publicly identifying certain minority groups, labelling them as deviant and raising people’s awareness of them, could actually encourage persecution and trigger conflict. Ifdhal Kasim, a member of staff at the President’s Office, is concerned that the app lists certain organisations as “deviant”(link is external) even before a court verdict has been made, thus strengthening the current trend.

Aside from these criticisms, there are a few other peculiarities. One of the features of the app is a menu titled “Fatwa MUI”. The MUI (Indonesian Council of Ulama) is not a state institution and it is not the only Indonesian Islamic organisation that issues fatwas — why are none of Indonesia’s many other fatwa-issuing bodies featured there?

Moreover, the jurisdiction of MUI fatwas is naturally limited to Muslims, although that has not stopped the body from issuing statements (not always fatwas) pertaining to the beliefs and practices of non-Islamic organisations. For example, in 2007, a group called the Dayak Hindu Budha Bumi Segandhu of Indramayu, a group influenced by Buddhist and Hindu traditions, was labelled deviant(link is external) by the local MUI. Wouldn’t local Hindu or Buddhist religious councils have more of a right to declare the group as deviant in this case?

Control versus recognition in a fragmented state

Special acknowledgment of the authority of MUI in the app’s design reflects only part of a larger long-term story of government intervention into the religious affairs of Indonesian citizens, which has improved little, despite the wide-ranging political changes that have occurred since 1998.

The government’s narrative is one that acknowledges only a limited number of global religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), and excludes non-global indigenous religions by definition, categorising them as “culture”. While official religions are overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, indigenous beliefs are under the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Further, this narrative also severely restricts non-mainstream (“deviant”) expressions of these religions. The AGO’s instrument to control minority indigenous beliefs and non-mainstream religious groups is the Coordinating Body to Monitor Indigenous Beliefs (Badan Koordinasi Pengawasan Aliran Kepercayaan Masyarakat, abbreviated as Bakor Pakem—thus the app’s name).

Bakor Pakem was established in 1952(link is external), initially under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and was tasked with monitoring the mushrooming of new religions, indigenous beliefs and “mysticism” (aliran kebatinan). In 1961, the institution was moved to the AGO.

With the issuance of the 1965 Blasphemy Law, signed by the first president, Soekarno, to meet the demands of some Muslim groups, Bakor Pakem was given power to control followers of indigenous beliefs and “deviant” groups, as well as those alleged to be defaming religion.

Recently, Bakor Pakem has observed the rise of indigenous beliefs, which it sees as a threat to the nation, and justification to call for the body’s reinforcement. That is one of the reasons the AGO Research and Development Centre in 2017(link is external) recommended the strengthening of its legal authority (by enacting a new law or presidential regulation on its status and tasks), a rise in its budget, and the development of an “intelligence data bank”. The Smart Pakem app seems to be a follow-up to that recommendation.

This development is actually at odds with the trend towards wider recognition of indigenous beliefs under law. In November 2017, the Constitutional Court allowed(link is external) the inclusion of indigenous beliefs in the “religion” (agama) column of the national identity card. While the decision does not give the same recognition(link is external) to followers of indigenous beliefs followers as it does to those of the six religions, there are already indications that they have secured more of their civil rights.

In 2016, a decision by the Ministry of Education and Culture allowed children of indigenous belief followers to receive their own religious education as part of their schooling. In general, even before the decision, the Directorate of Beliefs at the Ministry of Education and Culture has administered and advocated for the fulfilment of rights, and provided funding* for a variety of activities for the groups, which now include 187 registered organisations with 12 million members(link is external).

In this way, the Directorate’s move to provide more services for indigenous belief communities stands in stark contrast to that of Bakor Pakem, with its intel approach to monitoring and control through repressive means. The Smart Pakem app affirms this.

This fragmentation, if not outright contradiction, among agencies urgently needs to be addressed by the government.

As for the other target of the Blasphemy Law, “deviant” religious groups, strengthening Bakor Pakem will not help facilitate peace. A CRCS research report(link is external) suggests that the Blasphemy Law and Bakor Pakem have provided vigilante groups with legal justification to marginalise, discriminate against, and even attack minority religious groups.

If the Smart Pakem app is not recalled, we may see more cases of persecution. And if religious harmony is the objective, as the AGO argues, there has to be an alternative way of dealing with “deviant” groups, because Smart Pakem will deliver anything but harmony.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that funding and administration for indigenous belief education by the Directorate of Beliefs began as a result of the decision by the Ministry of Education and Culture in 2016. In fact, these activities precede the decision, as part of a greater trend towards recognition of indigenous beliefs since 1998.

-Zainal Abidin Bagir-
Zainal Abidin Bagir is a lecturer in the master’s program on religious and cross-cultural studies at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and a senior research fellow at the Paramadina Centre for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD Paramadina).

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