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Presidents can say what they like. They don’t need to consult their people. President Ahmadinejad of Iran can talk about the “elimination of Israel” as often as he wishes. Only he and his coterie know how many people are inspired by that kind of hate speech or who his admirers are. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia can ask members of the United Nations to introduce a “universal law against blasphemy” as often as he wants to. Only he and his inner circle know what good that is likely to do and who the supporters are. President Zardari of Pakistan tried to introduce the very same concept at the very same forum just a year ago. The idea had little fuel and got no traction.
Everybody knows the prospects of such a law ever being accepted universally are close to zero. Almost everybody. Freedom of speech is enshrined today in Western cultures. Any examination of media in Western countries would prove beyond doubt that Jesus Christ is more often the target than the Prophet Muhammad, regardless of how we may feel about that particular brand of humor. Each of these societies have laws in place against hatred and discrimination. A specific law against blasphemy would be an intrusion into another sacred space, freedom of speech.
It was Mark Twain who said “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. Technology, travel and music are the great unifiers of today challenging the celebrated author. They are helping to bridge the cultural gaps, across the globe. Even as the “dividers” try to “unify” the human race, they fail to appreciate the difference in values that continue to exist. And are likely to continue existing, for a few centuries more. The United States is the world’s most populous “Christian” country, with roughly 65 percent of the population going to a formal place of worship, regularly. Indonesia is the world’s biggest “Muslim” country, with roughly 70 percent of the population going to a formal place of worship, regularly. These numbers have remained constant in the last 12 months but have crawled up a smidgeon over the last five years. Unable to comment on recent changes in American values, our continuing measurement of social values proves Indonesians are becoming more conservative, not liberal, as some religious activists and politicians erroneously suggest. Either way, these are misguided motives to play the religious card for political gain. The evidence will show that there is no scope for the gains they may be seeking.
In a remarkable twist of irony, two countries with laws against blasphemy, Egypt and Pakistan, were embroiled in high-profile cases of blasphemy even while President Yudhoyono was in New York making his pitch. A Muslim cleric burnt a Bible in Egypt, a Muslim cleric tore pages out of a Koran in Pakistan. They are both being hauled before the courts in their respective countries. The world is watching. One way or another, the much-awaited outcomes of both prosecutions will affect the battered personalities of both countries on the world stage. In that context, even the staunchest supporters of President Yudhoyono cannot deny the hypocrisy of appealing for a universal law while failing, repeatedly, to use the law that exists in his own country. How many people have been arrested for burning Christian churches around the country, how many have been prosecuted and how many languish in jail? How many for attacks on minority Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmadiyas?
How many times have the thugs of the vigilante group FPI been put behind bars for crimes committed under his nose, in the capital city of Jakarta? The answers to these questions are a sad commentary on a president who is bound by the constitution to protect “unity in diversity”, or Bhinneka Tunggal Ika emblazoned below the national emblem. His scholarly predecessor, President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid knew better. In light of the current president’s ill-fated proclamations at the 67th General Assembly of The United Nations, the elder is being remembered again for presenting the confident face of Islam. Or any religion for that matter. To paraphrase, he stated the obvious: If our God is strong, if our faith is unshakeable, no abuse from lunatics on the extreme fringes of our societies can hurt us or our God. Simple. Uncomplicated. Even I understand that and I’m no scholar of anything in particular. Adding cling-wrap to a glasshouse will not keep the stones away.
If the president was trying to score a few brownie points with his home audience while using a global platform, the theater was ill-conceived. If he believes that the majority of Indonesians, Muslims by faith, are urging him to seek such a law universally, he has little evidence to stand on. He would know that, if he and his advisors had bothered to look for the evidence that is in fact available. But the signals sent out to the world via The United Nations by this widely acknowledged “country of moderate Muslims” can only have negative repercussions. Bad for business, this business of blasphemy.
Against the odds, the Indonesian economy is in great shape. But it isn’t invincible. There are many threats to prosperity, global winds that are difficult enough to thwart. There is little appetite in Indonesian society for self-inflicted wounds. The latest black comedy that is now being played out by the National Police against the anticorruption commission KPK has the attention of the people. There are vitally important issues that are crying out for the president’s attention. His silence has led to the jocular new acronym KPK for “Kemana President Kita”, or “where is our president?” This is no laughing matter, it is fundamental to the future prosperity and well-being of Indonesia.
If investors see President Yudhoyono as one step behind President Zardari and two steps behind President Ahmadinejad, ideologically speaking, Indonesia will soon need divine assistance. We have only to look at the economies of those two “Islamic republics” to figure out the possible consequences of meddling with the tenets of Pancasila. A conservative society does not mean a fundamentalist mob of bigots. That connection is mistakenly made by too many people too often, not just around the globe but right here in Indonesia. If the president has also jumped to the wrong conclusion, Indonesia will inevitably pay the price. Regardless of the facts, leadership often requires making tough choices. Not far away, President Aquino of The Philippines has taken the brave decision to start promoting contraception in a devoutly Catholic country. He knows he has the influential leaders of the church against him. But as the quips are saying, he is not daunted by the jihadists in his country. He knows that prosperity is the key, and he is determined to make the necessary changes for the good of his people. His report card is becoming enviable, not just this side of the world. All too often nowadays, some Indonesians hark back to the days of Gen. Soeharto. Who can blame them? Luckily for us all, freedom tastes too good to give up.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org