Reviewing the Gafatar case

Several ex-leaders of the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar) are undergoing litigation these weeks. They are accused of doing blasphemy, charged under the notorious 1965 law on religious defamation. And it is not  a light issue, of course. Thousands have become ‘refugees’ and subjects of discrimination after the Mempawah case early this year.

Many have been forcefully displaced; loosing their valuable property left in Kalimantan; stigmatized and not socially accepted after coming back to their hometown; and some getting criminal record in their police clearance letter (SKCK), leading to the curtail of some of their civil rights such as accesses to jobs. No religious/sectarian-related issues after the Reformasi have led to number of victims in that many.

Why can the case be that severe and a lot of people seem to normalize the discrimination? This was among questions tackled in a discussion involving an ex-Gafatar leader, representatives from the media, and some academics held by the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) of Universitas Gadjah Mada weeks ago. Some ideas have come up, and I think they are worth sharing here.

What lies beneath the heart of the problem is how we should make a proper narrative for Gafatar, as narrative can impact how the case is dealt with. What worsened the problem is that the dominant narrative says Gafatar is a form of religious deviance. Some see the case as a “kidnapping” as well as a “threat to national security” proven by some documents perceived to hide a political treason agenda—while the Gafatar leaders repeatedly said that the basis for their movement is Pancasila and their main program is food sovereignty; hence farming in Kalimantan.

Some academics, hoped to be aware of the sensitiveness of such an issue, said in some media that Gafatar is either a syncretic movement confounding the three Abrahamic teachings (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) or a cult with its typical traits such as living in an exclusively communal life adoring a prophet-like figure. Other academics said that Gafatar can fall under the term “New Religious Movement” (NRM), which is not a new phenomenon, has been studied in religious studies or sociology, and have been found many accross history of Nusantara, a land fertile for spiritual movements to grow.

The religious narrative may have some element of truth, because of the [allegedly] behind-the-scene involvement of Ahmad Musadeq, the founder of al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyyah once claiming to be a prophet and imprisoned for years. However, emphasizing the religious narrative will empower the normalization of the discrimination against ex-Gafatar followers, as is the case of other vulnerable groups such as Ahmadiyah and indigenous religions.

Worse is that the religious narrative has been embraced by some media (including some of the mainstream ones), as they make sources of information from some people from the government, the police and academics, while lacking confirmation from the Gafatar followers themselves. Some media even instantly consulted the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) with a tone implying as if the MUI fatwa was the voice representing the majority of Indonesian Muslims. The MUI fatwas have been in many cases a consultation to determine whether certain sects are deviant, which means they have some legal consequences. Media emphasizing the religious narrative, without making an equal emphasis on what Gafatar has positively contributed, will exacerbate the problem: that this is factually a case of a deviant sect.

When the dominant narrative is that the movement is a deviant sect, the way the government deals with the case is to look for the suitable law, that is, none other than the law on religious defamation, and not, for example, the law on overcoming conflicts. The consequnce is that people burning the property, forcefully displacing, and disriminating against are somehow immune and free to react in those ways.

What is proposed in the discussion was, therefore, for the media to reframe the “fact”— what is considered fact is a actually ‘fact’ that has been filtered through language and depending on who has the power to make the description and explanation. Media in particular, quoting Malcolm X, has the power to “control the minds of the masses.”

It was suggested for the media to take an advocative side for the vulnerable groups as well as to consult more to the conflict resolution experts, not the religious elites. Also, to reframe the story as a conflict was of importance. In the ‘deviant sect’ framing, the Gafatar will be under the defensive side—and it is most likely that if the ex-Gafatar leaders must continuously defend their case through religious language, they will lose in court. In conflict framing, the conflicting parties have interests and needs in clash that can be discussed in a more peaceful dialogue and the parties have relatively equal legitimacy in the dialogue.

The media as well as the academics have power to reframe the story—or, in the terms of conflict theory, “negotiating reality”. The reality is negotiated by saying that the case is not about deviant sect, but rather about people displaced, whose property has been burned—and so far no proper compensation—and whose civil rights are curtailed.

No less important, it was suggested for academics to have a more appropriate term for the movement, helping the public to properly make identification and categorization. One among the relatively successful stories of advocacy for indigenous religions is that there has been a term for them, i.e. aliran kepercayaan.

This is of paramount importance, especially in the Indonesian political context of the last decade (ironically, quite long after Reformasi) in which the 1965 law on religious defamation has been used around five times more compared to that during the New Order era.

Read the much longer and more detailed report of the discussion in Bahasa Indonesia on CRCS website here.

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