The two major Muslim-majority states of Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, have joined the chorus of condemnations against the deadly attacks in Paris on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The incident against the newspaper, infamous for its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad whose depiction is forbidden in some interpretations of Islam, has once again thrust the issue of free speech to the international stage. In response, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took to Twitter to declare his country’s unity with the French people, while Indonesia’s foreign ministry issued a statement backing French efforts to “bring the perpetrators to justice.”
While this solidarity and moral clarity is admirable, these countries continue to persecute editors, cartoonists and other citizens at home for exercising the same freedom of speech Charlie Hebdo was entitled to. It did not escape the attention of some, for instance, that two of the most prominent voices from the region condemning the attacks – the editor of The Jakarta Post, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, and the controversial Malaysian cartoonist Zunar – are both also under scrutiny at home for cartoons that were deemed to offend public sensibilities.
Meidyatama is being investigated for blasphemy in Indonesia after his newspaper published a cartoon of the flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group last July, which it has since apologized for and retracted. While he may not be convicted, others have not been so fortunate. Since 2004, Amnesty International notes over 100 individuals have been convicted under so-called blasphemy laws, with some imprisoned for up to five years. This is part of a troubling trend in Indonesia over the past decade under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, where the government has repeatedly failed to protect its citizens from assaults by hardline Islamist groups.
Zunar, meanwhile, is facing sedition charges in Malaysia over political satire cartoons. The current charges are not related to Islam per se, but he has been targeted by the government over the years for his satirical depictions of events including the country’s curious ban on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims. Such extreme decisions, some argue, are symptomatic of rising religious intolerance in the country as its ruling party panders to Malay rights groups to cling on to power following its worst-ever showing in 2013 polls. While Najib continues to tout his vision of a Global Movement for Moderates abroad, many are worried about Malaysia’s slow drift to Islamic fundamentalism at home.
The parallel, of course, is not exact. Meidyatama, Zunar and others who face persecution for related offenses in their countries have not been killed. But the hypocrisy of their governments is clear. Indonesia, Malaysia, their fellow Southeast Asian colleague Brunei, as well as other governments around the world cannot just condemn deadly assaults against free speech internationally when they themselves continue to crack down on it domestically. Their leaders should not wait for violence to extend the moral clarity they seem to find so easily abroad to their citizens at home.