In Indonesia, jailed for non-believing

Step Vaessen, based in Jakarta, has been reporting on Asia for more than a decade. An experienced video-journalist and filmmaker, her career in broadcast journalism has spanned almost two decades. In 2005, she won an Academy Award for her reports on the Asian tsunami.

Step Vaessen

When I met Alexander Aan in the police station where he was locked up in February, he said: “I cannot believe God exists when I see all the poverty in our country.”

On Thursday, the 32-year-old civil servant from Dharmasraya in West Sumatra was been sent to prison for two and half years and ordered to pay a fine of around $10,000. Judges found him guilty of inciting hatred towards religion with his postings on Facebook, which were mostly about Prophet Mohammad.

The verdict has drawn reactions from all over the world. Many questioned Indonesia’s growing intolerance towards minorities, including atheists.

Atheism appears to be growing in Indonesia, with nearly 1,000 followers on Twitter for a group called Indonesian Atheists. Most of the members are too afraid to expose themselves, a fact which underlining the existing intolerance towards “non-believers”.

Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom for every Indonesian, it also states that all citizens should believe in God. This contradiction has led to a debate among religious experts in Indonesia over whether atheism is illegal or not.

The judges in Aan’s case chose a safe way out; sentencing him not for atheism, but for inciting religious hatred.

Photo by AFP

The firm rejection of atheism in Indonesia hails from a dark period in its history. In the 1960s an estimated one million members of a growing communist party were killed by the military and Muslim youth groups. One of the main reasons the youngsters turned into killers was because of a strong propaganda campaign that portrayed communists as non-believers, even as devils.

Until this day, atheism and communism are practically synonymous in Indonesia.

But a new generation has long forgotten these painful historic events. Some decided to join the atheist community after witnessing growing intolerance in name of religion.

Since the fall of the authoritarian regime of former president Suharto in 1998, thousands have been killed during religious conflicts. In recent years, attacks on churches and religious minorities have multiplied.

“Indonesians are still a very tolerant people,” Endy Bayuni, the chief editor of the Jakarta Post, told Aljazeera in response to Aan’s verdict.

“But we are also tolerating the intolerant.”

That is exactly what is happening. I am writing this blog from a town in West Java where the local government has decided to implement Sharia laws that contradict national laws.

When I asked the mayor why the laws where needed he said: “I was fed up with the protests of radical groups every week at my office.”

The judges in West Sumatra have felt similar pressures. Radical groups had threatened to behead Aan and become violent if the verdict was not strong enough.

It’s not intolerance that is growing, but bowing to the pressure of the intolerant.

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