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The Problem with Freedom of Speech in Indonesia

Once again, blasphemy has caused a stir in Indonesia — this time over what counts as fiction.

In April, Indonesians were shocked by a statement made by a well-known lecturer in philosophy at the University of Indonesia. In a televised debate, Rocky Gerung said that “Scriptures are fictional and there is still more narration.” The context of Gerung’s statement was related to his defense of the term “fiction,” which can be perceived as negative. Instead, he argued that fiction contains positive messages that have elements of truth.

Gerung’s statement has caused much debate in Indonesia, a religiously conservative country. His comments that link sacred texts to fiction are reckless. Despite being based on his idea that fiction may contain positive connotations, the basis of his statement is weak.

For Muslims, the Quran is a holy and perfect book. It cannot be equated or juxtaposed with anything produced by humans. For example, chapter 10, verse 37 of the Quran states, “And it was not possible for this Quran to be produced by other than Allah, but [it is] a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of the [former] Scripture, about which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds.”

If we try to link this verse with the statement made by Gerung, a question arises over whether God created a fictional book. For Muslims, the answer is of course not. Muslims believe that the Quran — and, in fact, other Abrahamic scriptures including the Bible and the Torah — is not a fictional account but a divine scripture. There is a separate area of study dedicated to interpreting the meaning of the Quran called tafseer — common to all faiths under different names — and the scholars in this field are certainly not fictional experts.

The fallacy of the link between scripture and fiction can also be seen from the nature of both. Religious scriptures, like the Quran, are seen as absolute by adherents of the faith. The truth contained in them is accepted by Muslims around the world. And the scriptures, like those contained in Surah Yunus (Chapter Jonah), contain definite and binding laws.

In Indonesia, scriptures are also part of the supreme law influencing any state and societal activities. In Pancasila, the official philosophical values of Indonesia, the first principle that states the omnipotence of God also indicates that the country holds firmly to religious scriptures.

The symbolization that links state law and scripture is also seen in every official inauguration in which the holy book is used as a medium to inaugurate government officials. Officials are sworn in with scriptures depending on the faith they follow — an oath just like in the United States. The same is true when people testify in court. Scripture is also used to bind testimony under the umbrella of the law.

The absolute nature of a religious text is inversely proportional to speculative fiction. Although holy books may also contain a story that has not happened yet, such verses are based on absolute trust for adherents of the faith. Conversely, fiction is exactly that: fiction. People would not — and are not expected to — believe that fictional texts are absolute truths. Thus, speculation in fiction cannot be regarded as absolute truth. Ultimately, fiction cannot be a legal foundation.

As a result, religious scriptures cannot be attributed to other traits beyond divinity, even if they are seen as positive. Gerung’s statement is not very different from the blasphemy case brought against Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in 2017. Purnama was brought to justice after stating that Muslims had been deluded by a Quranic verse which states that they should not elect non-Muslims leaders during his campaign.

Gerung has to own up to his words and make a public apology to Indonesians. What made the situation worse was that it was uttered in a public setting, not in the academic realm. If a debate takes place between religious leaders and atheists, or in an academia-based religious context, Gerung’s remarks may be acceptable. Unfortunately, his remarks, which were uttered in a conservative country that upholds strict religious laws, were seen by a wide audience.

Public exposure has consequences. As a lecturer at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country, Gerung should be fully aware of the effects of his expressed position. His academic capacity will be tested on the robustness of his arguments.

As a student of politics, what I know is that freedom of speech and expression also has limits. To whom we speak, how we speak or when we speak. Because if it doesn’t, the objective of democracy — a peaceful and tolerant society — will not prevail.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Leila Ablyazova /