Indonesia Shuts Down Bar Chain Following Blasphemy Controversy

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Indonesia Shuts Down Bar Chain Following Blasphemy Controversy

Blasphemy prosecutions have become more common over the past two decades, undermining Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate Islamic state.

Indonesia Shuts Down Bar Chain Following Blasphemy Controversy
Credit: Facebook/Holywings Indonesia

Indonesian authorities have stripped a bar and restaurant chain of its operating permit after it ran a drinks promotion that ran afoul of the country’s stringent blasphemy laws, the latest sign of the rising intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

On June 28, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan revoked the permits of all 12 outlets of the Holywings nightlife chain in the capital Jakarta, following a furor over a promotion that offered free drinks to people named Mohammad or Maria.

The city authorities say that the outlets were closed due to licensing violations. But police also charged six employees with breaching the country’s blasphemy law, which carries prison terms of up to five years, and a blasphemy provision of Indonesia’s internet law, which carries a maximum 10-year prison term, Reuters reported yesterday.

In a social media post that has since been deleted, the Holywings, a nationwide chain that runs 36 bars and clubs in Indonesia, including a new beach club in Bali, offered a free bottle of gin for men named Mohammad and women named Maria every Thursday. This quickly attracted the attention of Indonesia’s hardline Islamic pressure groups, who held protests in front of Holywings outlets last week, clamoring for the chain’s closure.

“It was not our intention to associate religious elements with our promotion,”  the chain said in a Facebook post on . “Therefore, we apologize profusely to all Indonesian people. Please accept our apology and allow us to fix this and be even better in the future.” Other Holywings outlets in Surabaya and Makassar have been shut due to pressure from conservative groups, Coconuts Jakarta reported.

The Holywings blasphemy affair is just the latest sign of the rising religious intolerance and Islamic exclusivism that is gradually eroding Indonesia’s pluralist, unity-in-diversity reputation.

Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law, officially known as Law 1/PNPS/1956, punishes deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism – with up to five years in prison. In practice, most of the cases that go to trial involve perceived outrages against Islam, the country’s majority religion.

According to the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), Indonesia has imprisoned more than 150 people for blasphemy, most of them from religious minorities, since the passage of the law in 1965, but cases have escalated sharply since the turn of the century. HRW notes that the law was only employed eight times in the four decades after its passage, but that convictions rose to 125 during the decade when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power, from 2004 to 2014. HRW reported in 2018 that another 23 people have been sentenced since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014.

One particularly egregious recent case involved that of an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman from Tanjung Balai, Sumatra, who was arrested after she complained to a colleague about the volume of the call to prayer from a neighboring mosque. Rumors quickly spread that the woman was demanding that Muslims stop their calls to prayer altogether, prompting Muslim mobs to attack her house and ransack a number of Buddhist temples in the area. In May 2018, amid continuing pressure from Islamic groups, the local authorities capitulated and arrested her, and that August she was convicted and sentenced to 18 months’ prison.

Another case, perhaps the most prominent, involved Jakarta’s former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, often known as Ahok, who became the subject of a similar campaign of mass mobilization after he referenced a passage of the Quran during a campaign speech in late 2016. After losing an April 2017 runoff election, Ahok was arrested and sentenced to two years’ prison for blasphemy, a dramatic sign of the growing power of hardline Islamic groups. His opponent in that election was none other than the Jakarta’s current governor, Anies Baswedan, who did not hesitate to capitalize on his opponent’s plight.

HRW’s Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono, wrote in 2018 that the increasing use of the law had “contributed to the continuing decline in Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant Muslim country.” While Jokowi’s administration has since taken steps to curb the power of the Islamic pressure groups that railroaded Ahok – in early 2021, the government banned the Islamic Defenders Front, a notorious pressure group – the country’s latest ginned-up blasphemy controversy shows that Indonesia’s slide toward Islamic exclusivism continues apace.