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Indonesian man questions God, lands in prison

More than half of Indonesia’s 491 provincial districts have enacted various bylaws inspired by Islamic law, or Shariah.

Joe Cochrane

Growing up in a conservative Muslim household in rural West Sumatra, Alexander Aan hid a dark secret beginning at age 9: He did not believe in God. His feelings only hardened as he got older and he faked his way through prayers, Islamic holidays and Ramzan.

He stopped praying in 2008, when he was 26, and he finally told his parents and three siblings that he was an atheist — a rare revelation in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. They responded with disappointment and expressions of hope that he would return to Islam.

But Aan didn’t, and he ended up in prison after running afoul of a 2008 law restricting electronic communications. He had joined an atheist Facebook group started by Indonesians living in the Netherlands, and in 2011 he began posting commentaries outlining why he did not think God existed.

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“When I saw poor people, people on television caught up in war, people who were hungry or ill, it made me uncomfortable,” Aan, now 32, says. “As a Muslim, I had questioned God —what is the meaning of God?”

He was released on parole on January 27 this year after serving more than 19 months on the charge of inciting religious hatred.

Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, enshrines monotheism, and blasphemy is illegal. However, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and speech, and the country is 16 years into a transition from authoritarianism to democracy.


But Aan’s case is one of an increasing number of instances of persecution connected to freedom of religion in Indonesia. Although it has influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, every year there have been hundreds of episodes, including violent attacks, targeting religious minorities like Christians and Shiite and Ahmadiyah Muslims, as well as dozens of arrests over blasphemy against Islam.

Religious intolerance is on the rise at least partly because of the growing influence of radical Islamic groups.

“Aan’s case very much ties in with that whole trend,” says Benedict Rogers of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “Of course there would be religious people who would take offence about someone publicly expressing this view” about atheism, he said. “But if it weren’t for growing Islamism and extremism, Alexander’s case probably wouldn’t have happened.”


Aan’s troubles began in January 2012 when a mob in the Dharmasraya district of West Sumatra showed up looking for him at a government office where he worked as a data analyst.

“They wanted me to stop saying there is no God,” he says. “I told them it was my right to express my beliefs.”

Police officers were called to prevent any violence, and they instead escorted Aan to the local police station, where he found himself being interrogated and, within hours, charged with disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred. The next day, he was charged with blasphemy and inciting others to embrace atheism.

A court threw out the blasphemy and atheism charges, but it convicted Aan in June 2012 of trying to incite religious hatred and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison.

Christian groups and religious and human rights advocates say that rising religious intolerance is also linked to the efforts to promote regional autonomy in Indonesia in 1999 as part of the country’s transition to democracy after three decades of authoritarian rule under President Suharto.


More than half of Indonesia’s 491 provincial districts have enacted various bylaws inspired by Islamic law, or Shariah. “So much power was given to local authorities, and in many cases, there were violations against religious freedom,” says Theophilus Bela of the Indonesian Conference on Religions for Peace, an NGO.

These days, Aan says, he is still active on Facebook and Twitter, but he never mentions religion or his criminal case.

First published on: 13-05-2014 at 03:35:07 am
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