Indonesian Islamic school leader detained on blasphemy charge after Muslim groups protest

Arie Firdaus
Indonesian Islamic school leader detained on blasphemy charge after Muslim groups protest Panji Gumilang, leader of the Al Zaytun Islamic Boarding School, makes his way into the Indonesian Police Criminal Investigation Agency in Jakarta, Aug. 1, 2023.
Reno Esnir/Antara Foto/via Reuters

Indonesian police arrested the leader of an Islamic boarding school on blasphemy and hate-speech charges Wednesday after Muslim groups accused him of un-Islamic practices such as allowing mixed-gender prayer.

Police said their investigation had found evidence of alleged blasphemy by Panji Gumilang, the head of the Al Zaytun school in West Java, who faces a maximum 10 years in prison if found guilty. 

One human rights group criticized the blasphemy law as violating religious freedom and said its use ahead of the February 2024 election appeared to cater to conservative elements of the electorate in the Muslim-majority country.

The police said they had questioned Panji, 77, and examined videos of his speeches and lectures. Investigators also gathered statements from witnesses and experts.

“We have designated him as a suspect and will detain him for the next 20 days,” national police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan told reporters. 

Authorities did not specify what Panji had said or done that constituted blasphemy. But they said they were acting on a complaint filed by a group called the Forum of Advocates for Pancasila.

Pancasila is Indonesia’s state ideology, which espouses belief in one god, humanity, unity, democracy and justice.

The group’s leader, Ihsan Tanjung, said he had submitted 15 videos as evidence, including clips of Panji allegedly saying that the Quran comprised the words of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. 

“That is very insulting and constitutes deviant teaching,” Ihsan told BenarNews. “It is very disturbing and can cause hostility.” 

According to Islamic belief, the Quran is God’s speech revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Ihsan said other offending videos included one that allegedly showed Panji teaching his students to sing a Jewish song “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” and another showing him leading a prayer with men and women in the same row, which is against Islamic norms.

“All the videos we handed over to the police can create unrest and hatred,” Ihsan said.

Panji has denied the accusations.

He had earlier told the Liputan6 news website that the mixed-gender prayer was a way to give women equal rights. 

“Women deserve equal rights. So, we make them equal, because it’s the right thing to do,” he was quoted as saying.

Defense lawyer Hendra Effendi said he would seek a stay of his client’s detention and file a pretrial motion to challenge his arrest. He said Panji should be released on humanitarian grounds.

“He is too old at 77,” Hendra said, adding his client also has health issues.

Hendra denied that Panji had committed blasphemy or taught anything that deviated from Islam.

“His teachings are only based on the Quran and the Sunnah,” which are the practices of Muhammad, he said.

‘Persecution of people’

The human rights group Setara Institute said the blasphemy law was often used to prosecute religious minorities and dissenters.

“The government is pandering to the whims and sentiment of conservative groups, especially in an election year,” said Halili Hasan, the group’s executive director.

Indonesia is scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 14, 2024. 

Halili also said that Panji’s case would set a bad precedent for religious freedom in the country.

“The blasphemy law will keep leading to the persecution of people under blasphemy charges as long as it is in use,” he said.

Supporters of then-Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, stage a protest outside Cipinang Prison where he was taken following his conviction for blasphemy, in Jakarta, May 9, 2017. [Darren Whiteside/Reuters]

A case that attracted global attention was the 2017 sentencing of Jakarta’s former Christian Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blaspheming Islam.

A now-banned group called the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) led a campaign against Ahok over allegations that he had insulted the Quran after an edited video made it appear that he had said Islam’s holy book deceived people.

This spurred thousands of Muslims to hold protests against him in the run-up to a gubernatorial election in Jakarta, in which he was a front-runner. Ahok lost that election and later served his two-year prison sentence.

According to the Setara Institute, blasphemy cases have surged since Joko “Jokowi” Widodo became president in 2014, reaching 122 cases by 2022.

By contrast, Setara said there were only 57 cases recorded from 1998, when Indonesia began its democratic transition after 32 years of iron-fisted rule, until 2013.

Controversial figure

Panji’s arrest was welcomed by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a semi-official body of clerics, which had recently issued a fatwa, or religious edict, stating that his teachings were blasphemous.

“The fatwa that we delivered to the police also verified that he [Panji] had committed blasphemy,” said Amirsyah Tambunan, the MUI secretary.

Still, Panji’s school, Al Zaytun, should not be shut down because of its leader’s arrest, said Zainut Tauhid, an MUI deputy chairman.

“The next step is for the government to take charge of [Al Zaytun] and offer guidance,” he said.

Panji has been a controversial figure in Indonesia for decades. 

He has been accused of having ties to the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII), a rebel group that sought to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia shortly after its independence in 1945. 

He founded Al Zaytun in 1996 as an alternative educational institution that aimed to produce Muslim leaders who could compete globally. Over the years, high-ranking officials and politicians have visited the school.

Al Zaytun has faced scrutiny from religious authorities and former members of NII, which analysts have said has spawned militant offshoots such as Jemaah Islamiyah, the group blamed for a series of deadly bombings in Indonesia in the 2000s.


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