Religious Affairs Ministry reissues guidelines on mosque loudspeakers suggesting their use be limited

Photo illustration. Photo: Pixabay
Photo illustration. Photo: Pixabay

Last week, Meiliana, an Indonesian woman of Chinese descent, was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for blasphemy for allegedly complaining about the volume of the speaker at a mosque near her house, eventually leading to rioting and the burning of several Buddhist temples in her hometown of Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, in July 2016. The verdict has been heavily criticized by many, including senior religious and political figures as well as over 150,000 people who have signed a petition asking President Joko Widodo to intervene in her case.

On Friday, the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs weighed in on the matter, in a roundabout way, by issuing a circular containing suggested guidelines for the use of mosque speakers, including limiting the use of loudspeakers for things other than the azan (call to prayer), especially during hours when other people may be sleeping.

Some international outlets, such as the Straits Times in an article titled “Indonesia issues guidelines on call to prayer amid outcry over blasphemy case”, seemed to suggest that the government had issued brand new guidelines due to the case. But as was carefully noted by all Indonesian articles on the ministry’s circular, the guidelines were actually first issued in 1978 as a letter from what was then known as the director general of Islamic Guidance.

The 1978 guidelines specify that mosque loudspeakers be used by experienced personnel to prevent the creation of disturbing mechanical static that would degrade the quality of the audio and possibly create ill will towards mosques. It also asked that those giving the azan have melodious voices.

In addition the guidelines ask that azan only be broadcast at appropriate times and that loudspeakers not be used for other purposes, such as Quranic recitals, especially during times when people might otherwise be resting. The letter cites Quranic verse regarding the Muslim obligation to respect and honor their neighbors.

The reason the Religious Affairs Ministry was careful to point out that they were simply “reissuing” 40 year old guidelines is likely due to the outcry that would be caused were people to perceive that they were new and specifically issued over Meiliana’s case.

As the term guidelines suggests, the ministry also has no power to enforce these regulations and, given the sensitive nature of such issues in the Muslim-majority nation (there have been numerous legal disputes and conflicts over mosque loudspeakers in the past) they would likely face fierce opposition were they to try to enforce them.

Din Syamsuddin, the chairperson of the Advisory Council of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), on Sunday joined a number of other senior and political figures who have come out to say that complaining about the volume of a mosque speaker should not be considered blasphemy.

“Indeed, the sound of the call to prayer, especially in a pluralistic environment (there are non-Muslims), needs to be sound comforting. Maybe the soft and melodious voice of the azan can rouse non-Muslims to like the call to prayer,” Din said in a written statement picked up by Liputan 6.

However, MUI Vice Chairman Zainut Tauhid Sa’adi argued that Meiliana’s case involved more than simply a complaint about the volume of the loudspeaker because she also allegedly used “sarcastic” and “mocking” language. A local branch of MUI issued a fatwa saying that Meiliana had committed blasphemy, which was used as a primary piece of evidence against her in her court case (her defense attorneys argued she never used such language and that there is no recorded evidence of any of her allegedly blasphemous statements).  

According to the prosecutor’s version of events, the case began about a week before the July 2016 riots when Meiliana went to some of her Muslim neighbors and asked them to ask the caretakers of the mosque in front of her house to reduce the volume of their speakers because it was noisy and painful.

Her request was relayed to the mosque’s management, who visited her on the day before the riots. Meiliana repeated her request that they reduce the mosque’s speakers volume which allegedly led to an argument. Meiliana’s husband went to the mosque to apologize but word had already gotten out about what she said, which spread on social media, leading to calls for violence and the subsequent riots.

Meiliana was reported to the police for blasphemy and the North Sumatra branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa declaring that she had indeed insulted Islam. After that, she was named a suspect by the police leading to her eventual imprisonment.

Shortly after the riots, President Joko Widodo demanded that firm action be taken against the rioters and police made numerous arrests. However, out of the eight people who were eventually convicted for their part in the violence and property damage, all but one received sentences of less than two months in jail (one received a sentence of 2 months and 18 days) at the conclusion of their trials in January 2017.

Meiliana’s attorneys have said they will appeal the verdict.

Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy laws have been under intense scrutiny in the past few years, particularly after the jailing of former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in 2017 for blasphemy against Islam. Many domestically and abroad, including the United Nations, have called for the abolishment of the laws as they are prone to political manipulation and have been used overwhelmingly to persecute religious minorities.

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