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Essay: Watch your remarks in virtual spaces

Setiono Sugiharto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, August 6, 2018  /  08:28 am
Essay: Watch your remarks in virtual spaces

Watch your language when dealing with religion-related issues in virtual spaces. (Shutterstock/File)

Watch your language when dealing with religion-related issues in virtual spaces. Please. Make sure you don’t make a tongue-in-cheek or snide remark when professing your own faith or talking about other people’s faith lest you be accused of igniting enmity and disseminating blasphemy and be ensnared in Article 28 of Law No. 11/2008 on electronic information and transactions.

A recent case in point is that of a man suspected of lampooning firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab and Prophet Muhammad by posting alleged inflammatory remarks of the Islam Defenders Front leader in a Facebook comment. Despite his admission to venting his displeasure with the cleric, the man’s choice of words was deemed blasphemous, which eventually led to his detention by the police.

The case reminds me of another popular incident back in 2012, when a man hailing from Padang, West Sumatra, professed in a Facebook post his disbelief of the existence of God.

Alexander Aan, the owner of the infamous “Ateis Minang” Facebook group, publicly proclaimed himself as an atheist and was found guilty of blasphemy and inciting enmity and then sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, making him the first person in Indonesia to be put into jail for being an atheist.

Because his case drew the attention of the international community, where public proclamations of atheism are not uncommon, Amnesty International dubbed his sentencing as that of a prisoner of conscience.

The judges’ verdict on Alexander, however, was deemed too much by legal experts, as he was only exercising his right to voice his belief and opinion — a right granted by the country’s Constitution.

At the outset, it needs to be highlighted that juridical aspects can in no way be used as a justification for either verifying or falsifying one’s beliefs and faiths.

The problem is not just that belief and faith are personal matters, but they are too ineffable to be linguistically verbalized and too fuzzy to verify or falsify. They cannot, therefore, be proven via jurisdiction.

Alexander’s personal testament as an atheist cannot be interpreted reductively as the denial of the existence of God and His divine properties. This is at best the standard and widely-held conception of atheism.

In this standard conception, an atheist defends his or her beliefs using the so-called “problem of evil” argument, which reads that if evil exists, then such propositions as God is all-powerful and God is all-good can be summarily nullified, and therefore it can be concluded that God doesn’t exist.

The notion of atheism, however, is a nebulous one and always open to a wide array of readings, depending upon which school of thought one wishes to adhere to.

One plausible reading of atheism comes from the so-called Via Negativa School — also known as the Apophatic Way. To this school, atheism is an ambivalent concept. On the one hand, God is perceived as non-existent, because He goes beyond the human mind and language and His divine attributes cannot be captured via cognitive meaning.

In other words, theses divine attributes are ineffable — too great to be described and depicted via language. As such, the concept of God being uninstantiated. To those embracing this reading, religion-related language is meaningless, because of its inadequacy to evince the ultimate reality.

On the other, the existence of God, along with His divine attributes, can only be negated or denied, rather than acknowledged. The common credo is “talk about God by not saying what He is, but by saying what He is not”. The Via Negativa School has in fact blurred the polarization between theism and atheism.

Adopting this perspective, we can argue that accusing an atheist of spreading blasphemy and igniting hatred is groundless because of the ambivalent nature of the notion of atheism.

As to which readings of atheism Alexander based his claim on, this needs further scrutiny. Even if he meant both, under the readings from the Apothatic Way his admission of being an atheist cannot be shallowly interpreted as the repudiation of the existence of God and His divine attributes.

Another reading on atheism springs from what is called the Non-Verification-Falsification Principle. This is to say that any religion-related statement can neither be proved true (verify) nor false (falsify). This principle seems to have inspired the country’s religious authorities to declare any opinion (not desired by the mainstream religious faith) defamatory and blasphemous.

In this perspective, the proposition God exists must not be challenged by either verifying or falsifying it, despite the wealth of arguments proposed to prove God’s existence, such as the cosmological argument, the ontological argument and the teleological argument. To do so is tantamount to defaming the ultimate reality.

The two Facebook posting incidents described above show how powerfully linguistic texts can act in a subtle way, in that they have potential effects on the people reading and hearing them. Depending on who interprets the texts, the effects on the readers and hearers may vary.

Thus, everyone ought to watch their remarks when making tongue-in-cheek comments or posting images in virtual spaces. Otherwise, they will be accused of spreading blasphemy and hatred, and eventually land in prison.


The writer teaches at the graduate school of Applied English Linguistics, School of Education and Language, Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.