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JAKARTA – For The Jakarta Post‘s editor in chief, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the timing was peculiar.
On July 3 last year, the newspaper published a cartoon critical of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. It showed a group of armed men hoisting a pirate skull-and-crossbones flag emblazoned with the Arabic words for “there is no god except Allah”, and inside the skull the words “Allah, Mohammed and Apostle”.
Coincidentally, Indonesia’s presidential election was just days away, and later in the week that the cartoon appeared the newspaper formally endorsed Jakarta governor Joko Widodo as its preferred candidate in the July 9 poll.
The first reaction to the cartoon – which was not drawn by the newspaper but had been internationally syndicated – surfaced only the week after the publication, when a group called the Jakarta Muslim Preachers Corps filed a police complaint calling the cartoon blasphemous and saying it made Islam seem a violent religion.
Indonesia has 70 million Facebook users and almost 30 million on Twitter, yet no outcry was seen until just a couple of days before Indonesians were gearing up to vote.
“In this day of social media and instant communication, I found that somewhat unusual that it all came out the following week, that The Jakarta Post could be portrayed as insulting Islam in the middle of Ramadan, right after it endorsed one candidate for president and right before the election,” said Suryodiningrat.
All bar one of Indonesia’s Islamic political parties backed the losing candidate, Prabowo Subianto, as did the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an vigilante group known for harassing religious minorities and perceived heretics.
Suryodiningrat was formally named a criminal suspect in December, and faces five years in jail if found guilty of blasphemy, though that prospect has diminished after the police asked the Indonesian Press Council to review the case and assess whether it would be prepared to rule on the case. It is expected to announce a decision in the coming days.
But even if Suryodiningrat gets off with just a Press Council reprimand, Indonesia’s criminal code still prohibits blasphemy – the insulting or defamation of religion – in a provision that rights groups such as Amnesty International say has been overused in recent years and should be revoked.
Commonly regarded as southeast Asia’s most democratic country, along with the Philippines, Indonesia otherwise has relatively few restrictions on journalists.
The world’s biggest Muslim-majority country is also commonly depicted as adhering to a moderate, syncretic brand of Islam, prompting suggestions that it could mediate between the West and Islam following last week’s Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris by French militants linked to IS and al-Qaeda.
That an Indonesian newspaper might publish a cartoon considered blasphemous by local zealots suggests that there might be some common ground between Indonesian and western media.
The Jakarta Post apologized for publishing the cartoon, calling it “an error in judgement”, but maintains it was a legitimate piece of journalism aimed at criticizing the actions of IS and its use of religious symbols.
In the weeks following publication, IS prompted global revulsion over its mass kidnappings of non-Muslim women as sex slaves, beheadings of Western journalists and mass executions of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers. “A month after I was charged, the government banned [IS],” said Suryodiningrat, a development he believes shows that his newspaper’s critique of Islamic State was in line with official policy.
But would The Jakarta Post publish something as abrasive, even scurrilous, as the often lewd satirical cartoons run in Charlie Hebdo? “That would be difficult to say, we publish things with a specific news peg, such as the IS cartoon,” said Suryodiningrat.
A 2014 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre suggested that 99 per cent of Indonesians felt a person must believe in God to be deemed moral. compared with 53 per cent in the US, 23 per cent in Australia and 15 per cent in France, the lowest ranked country.
So how would Indonesia’s roughly 200 million Muslims react to a local newspaper running some of Charlie Hebdo‘s output? “Even though the majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderate, some can be offended by this caricature,” said Taufik Abdullah, a prominent scholar of Islam and a member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences. “But the habit of the majority is to just keep silent.”
Nonetheless, The Jakarta Post cartoon was unlikely to have angered very many Indonesians, Abdullah added. “Usually just hardline groups like the FPI react to this.”Show