Imam Habib Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Shariah promotion group the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) is facing criminal charges of violating Indonesia’s laws against blasphemy after a Catholic group accused him of mocking the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Indonesian Catholic Students Association (PMKRI) has filed charges against Rizieq in Jakarta following the publication of a sermon in which Rizieq questions the possibility of Jesus existing. According to the Jakarta Post, Rizieq asks his audience during a sermon on Christmas Day, “If God gave birth, then who would be the midwife?” The comment was part of a larger sermon explaining the need to prohibit Muslims from wishing Christians a merry Christmas under Sharia law.
The PMKRI also pressed charges against two other individuals who distributed Rizieq’s remarks on social media. These suspects are being charged with violating laws against disseminating hate speech.
Rizieq is charged with violating Article 156(a) of Indonesian law, the “blasphemy” law, which reads:
By a maximum imprisonment of five years shall be punished for whosoever in public deliberately expresses their feelings or engages in actions that:
a. in principle is hostile and considered as abuse or defamation of a religion embraced in Indonesia;
b. has the intention that a person should not practice any religion at all that is based on belief in Almighty God.
The law, Amnesty International notes, is most often used against non-Muslims to silence diversity of religion, and was passed “to accommodate requests from Islamic organizations to prohibit mystical indigenous beliefs.”
It is extremely rare for the law to be used to prosecute Muslims for speaking ill of another religion.
PMKRI chairman Angelius Wake Kako announced the decision to press charges on Monday, saying he felt personally “humiliated and hurt” by Rizieq’s remarks and that “all Indonesians should respect diversity by not interfering in the private rooms of other religions.”
On his website, Rizieq issued a statement in which he asserted that he had hosted interfaith dialogues and that “all religious leaders are satisfied and happy” with his religious practice. “Rizieq never insulted any religion,” the statement reads, “PMKRI, do not spread slander. Be careful, Muslims can be wrathful and anger can explode… !!!”
In another article on the site responding to the charges, Rizieq’s site calls the charges “cheesy maneuvers” that are “degrading and humiliating to police institutions.”
In 2012, the FPI mobilized mobs of Sharia supporters against the artist Lady Gaga, who a spokesman described as “promoting the worship of Satan” and accused of “insult[ing] all religions.” When not mobilizing against a large looming threat like Lady Gaga, the group attacks individuals immodestly dressed in public and Christian businesses and organizations. Earlier this month, for example, FPI supporters “stormed a car dealership whose employees had been asked to wear Christmas-themed outfits, threatening the owner.”
The government has blocked Rizieq’s website in the past for promoting hate speech, but the group continues to act with relative liberty in Indonesia. The group played a pivotal role, for example, in organizing mobs demanding the arrest of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian currently on trial for allegedly remarking on an Quranic verse some claim prohibits Muslims from being governed by non-Muslims.
Rizieq reportedly commented at length on the verse in a sermon this week, “loudly… call[ing] on Muslims to choose a Muslim leader,” according to reports.
“The scripture is divine revelation not to be revised and fixed price that must be obeyed,” he reportedly told his audience, “While the constitution verses are the result of human thought. When the constitution is in line with scripture then we, as citizens, obey to the constitution. But when the constitutional clause is contrary to God’s law, it is forbidden for us to obey it.”