An ethnic-Chinese woman in Indonesia whose supposed complaint about the volume of a mosque loudspeaker triggered a riot in the northern Sumatran town of Tanjung Balai in 2016 has been jailed for 18 months for blasphemy.
The sentence was more than four times longer than the term given to rioters who destroyed Meiliana’s house and around 14 Buddhist temples in the sprawling city of Medan after the Buddhist mother of four complained to a friend about the noise and asked if she could talk to the caretakers.
More than 100 Islamic activists, crowded into the court and cheered “Allah Akbar” when judge Wahyu Prasetyo Wibowo ruled that the 44-year-old was guilty of making “provocative and hurtful” remarks to cause a riot. She cried in the dock.
There are hundreds of thousands of Indonesian mosques and most use loudspeakers to play the “azan” or call to prayer, which lasts a few minutes. But many also play prolonged recordings of prayers or sermons lasting over 30 minutes, which has been deemed unnecessary by the Indonesian Mosque Council.
The invention of amplification has had a significant impact on those living near mosques across the Muslim world.
The call to prayer is repeated five times a day.
“This decision is ludicrous and we have immediately lodged an appeal,” said lawyer Ranto Sibarani.
“She didn’t say anything of that nature. On July 22, 2016, she was chatting with her shopkeeper neighbour and simply said, ‘Don’t you think our mosque’s loudspeaker is getting louder and louder?’. Of course, as this got passed down from one person to the next, the message got distorted.
“She also didn’t say anything controversial when dozens of people came to her house on the night of July 29. How could she? They were angry and they pelted rocks at her house. She knew as a minority, a Chinese, a Buddhist, that she shouldn’t say anything bad at them. This is a trumped-up case, made to justify the looting and burning of Chinese people’s houses and shops.”
Rights campaigners have warned that blasphemy laws are used to bully minorities and violate religious freedom.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chair of the Setara Institute, an Indonesian democracy body, said Meiliana was used as a scapegoat because of political pressure.
“What Meiliana did could not be categorised as blasphemy,” Bonar said.
Last week, a nursery in East Java province was criticised for dressing children in niqabs and having them carry fake rifles for an Independence Day parade. Over the weekend, a fatwa was issued declaring that the measles vaccine was haram.
The town of Tanjung Balai. Sumatra appears to be the testing ground for radical Islam in Indonesia. Picture credit: Wikimedia