Religious official, lawmaker say complaining about call to prayer volume not blasphemy after woman sentenced to 18 months

Photo illustration. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Photo illustration. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Medan District Court on Tuesday sentenced a 44-year-old woman named Meiliana to 18 months in prison for insulting Islam in violation of Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy law, in line with the case prosecutors’ sentencing demand.

In July 2016, rioters in the city of Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, attacked and burned several Buddhist temples. The riot was allegedly triggered by a complaint by Meiliana, a Chinese-Indonesian, who said that the mosque speaker in front of her house was too loud.

Her sentence drew outrage from many in Indonesia, especially considering those responsible for the violent riots received far more lenient punishments, and religious officials and politicians alike have joined the chorus of criticisms against this particular application of the blasphemy law.

“I don’t see that an opinion that a mosque speaker being too loud is a form of hate expression or hatred towards a particular religion or group,” said Robikin Emhas, head of the Justice, Human Rights and Law department at the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board (PBNU), the country’s largest Muslim organization, as quoted by CNN Indonesia yesterday.

Robikin went on to say that Meiliana complaining about a mosque speaker being too loud should instead be seen as a form of constructive criticism to ensure religious harmony between people of different faiths.

Sodik Mudjahid, the head of Commission VIII at the House of Parliament (DPR), which overlooks religious issues in the country, also criticized the court’s decision.

“The judge must see things clearly. A call to prayer being too loud is clearly a nuisance, just like music being played too loud. So it’s about volume, not religious values,” he told Detik yesterday.

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.

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