Indonesian Islamic Cleric Accused of Blasphemy For Gender Equality Claims

An Islamic boarding school and its leader in Indonesia are under fire for its unorthodox teachings on Islam, facing charges of blasphemy and hate speech filed by authorities in the Muslim-majority country.

Indonesian police named 77-year-old Panji Gumilang, head of the Al-Zaytun school in the conservative province of West Java, a suspect on August 1st, according to police official Djuhandhani Rahardjo. Gumilang might face a maximum of ten years imprisonment if found guilty of hate speech and blasphemy.

Gumilang founded the boarding school in 1996, and it has roughly 5,000 students. Al-Zaytun school sparked controversy in Indonesia for its unusual practices, such as allowing men and women to pray together and letting women become preachers, which are uncommon in Indonesia and other parts of the Muslim world.

The Islamic Clerical Council of Indonesia argued that some of Al-Zaytun’s practices were a "wrong interpretation of the Koran" and had the school investigated last June for "misguided religious practices.

Although Indonesia is officially a secular state and has a tradition of religious pluralism, tolerance, and “moderate” Islam, conservative interpretations of Islam are beginning to gain ground since Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator who ruled the country for 30 years, stepped down in 1998.

Gumilang defended the Al-Zaytun school and argued during an interview with Indonesian media outlet Metro TV that women and men were equal according to his interpretation of the Quran.

He’s not the first Indonesian to be charged with blasphemy under Indonesia’s laws. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Indonesian and a Christian who served as governor of Jakarta, was jailed in 2017 after he warned voters not to be swayed by politicians using the Quran for campaigning. The case shook Indonesia’s pluralistic foundations.

Human rights groups have criticized the use of blasphemy laws in Indonesia, which threaten freedom of religion in a country that only officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch says that Al-Zaytun’s case is an example of how minority views are repressed in Indonesia.

If a Muslim cleric is accused of committing blasphemy against Islam for promoting women's rights, something must be terribly wrong with both Indonesia's blasphemy law and the mainstream (clerical) groups,” Harsono said.

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