Since the country’s democratization in 1998, Indonesia has generally witnessed a great improvement in human rights conditions. There exists a great diversity of religious communities in the country and the vast majority of these groups operate with scant legal restrictions. National political and religious leaders are comfortable having open dialogues about the importance of religion in the political arena. Though the country is approximately 87 percent Muslim, five other religions are officially state-sanctioned. These are Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.

Yet in April, the Indonesian Constitutional Court upheld a controversial law banning religious blasphemy in the country. In an eight-to-one decision, the court declared that the 45-year-old law was in keeping with Indonesia’s national ideology. In its present form, the law grants the attorney general’s office the power to punish heresy with jail terms of up to five years and also the authority to ban religious groups that “misrepresent” state sanctioned faiths.

The law usually applies to perceived offenses against mainstream Islam. Thus, it has a great deal to do with the preservation of the status quo. Indeed, Indonesia’s concerned minister of religious affairs commented before the ruling that if the law were to be annulled, Islam and the Quran could be interpreted at will and that individuals would declare with impunity new prophets and new religions. Over the past few years the law has been used many times. Arrests have been made for offenses as varied as whistling during prayers to trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. In 2007, the Supreme Court sentenced a man to three years in prison for claiming to be the reincarnation of the prophet Muhammad. In 2008, the government actively disbanded Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect that held that Muhammad was not the last prophet.

The decision is a major setback for the groups that petitioned the repeal of the law—groups which included religious minorities, moderate and secular Muslims, and advocates of democracy and human rights. Indonesia still makes extensive use of a council of Islamic advisors, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). Founded during the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1975, the MUI continues to be funded and overseen by the government, although it retains nominal independence. The MUI exerts a great deal of influence; the government often carries out its fatwas (death sentences). The recent ruling definitively affirmed the power of the MUI, which, by some, is considered a paramount threat to the democratic stability of Indonesia. Certainly, the blasphemy law is a check on the expanding pluralism of Indonesian society. By not extending the full protection of the law to religious minorities, it curtails freedom of speech and bestows upon the government the continued ability to define and dictate societal norms.

But more immediately concerning to Indonesian pluralism is the renewed attention to the law. Its recent affirmation by the nation’s highest court may well embolden religious extremists and foment sectarian strife. Even during the hearings of the Constitutional Court, members of the militant Islamic Defenders Front attacked lawyers seeking to repeal the blasphemy law. In the wake of the court’s announcement, the American Commission on International Religious Freedom asserted that the ruling could give extremist groups ammunition and cover to enforce a vision of religious conformity not shared by the majority of Indonesians.

The ruling comes at a time of generally increasing extremist activity. Public support for domestic terrorism has rapidly declined in Indonesia since Bali’s devastating 2005 bombings. Yet since then, the country has seen the dramatic growth and extended influence of political and religious groups operating under the aegis of Islamic orthodoxy. Additionally, the past few years have witnessed a significant expansion of mob violence that targeted members of unauthorized Islamic sects as well as some Christian religious sites.

Extremist groups such as the Islamic Defender Front, the Indonesian Council of Martyrs, and the Islamic Umat Forum continue to use violence. Such groups have intimidated judges and vandalized or destroyed religious minorities’ buildings such as Christian churches, Hindu temples, and Shi’a mosques. Notably, such acts of violence did not occur in a vacuum; since the MUI issued a fatwa against the Ahmadi sect in 2005, attacks on the sect have risen dramatically.

It is clear, then, that in addition to posing problems for human rights and democratic stability, the recent ruling paints a grim picture for the future of sectarian violence in Indonesia. However, some channels for amelioration of the situation are still open. The Indonesian government has put considerable effort into reducing sectarian tensions by investing funds in conflict mediation programs and interfaith economic development. Local governments themselves have initiated programs to rebuild churches, mosques, and other buildings destroyed in violence and police have been actively involved in arresting terror suspects. Still, the upholding of the blasphemy law may be adding fuel to a fire that has already been demonstrated as hard to put out.