Cartoons of Prophet Muhammed in the Internet Age: Indonesia

By Rien Kuntari




On September 30, 2005, twelve cartoons most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Though equality and freedom of expression is highly respected in Denmark, this publication triggered public protests by Danish Moslem Organization. In response, many Indonesian Moslem Organizations showed their anger and spread knowledge of the Jyllands-Posten’s publication. Then, the cartoons were reprinted in newspaper in more than twenty other countries. This is led even more violent protest, especially by fundamentalist Moslem groups.


Critics of the cartoon have described them as Islamophobic and argue that they are blasphemous, intended to humiliate a marginalized Moslem. And, they display an ignorance of the history of western imperialism, from colonialism to the conflicts in the Middle East.


While supporters of the cartoon claim they illustrate an important issue in an age of Islamic extremist terrorism. Their publication exercises the right of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. They also claim that similar cartoons about other religions frequently printed, arguing that the followers of Islam were not targeted in a discriminatory way.




Indonesia is the biggest Moslem populous country in the world. And, in my experience, it is prohibited to make an open debate about Islam, even as knowledge, let alone a prophet cartoon. To Moslem communities worldwide, it is an enormous spiritual importance.


A Moslem friend explained, as mentioned in Hadith, for the last 14 centuries, Moslems have adhered to a strict code that prohibits any visual portrait of the prophet. “Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (Muhammad peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint my portraits would be punished on the Day of Resurrection…” (Hadith). The only reason of Muhammad’s unwillingness to be visualized is to prevent Him from being an individual cult. When this code was violated and their Prophet mocked for the purpose of humor, Moslems felt a direct assault on their faith.


While to non-Moslem, especially Christians, such a cartoon may only be of casual interest. God tells us to be happy even when we were insulted just because we are His followers. “Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you just because you are My followers.” (Matt 5:11)




In the Soeharto’s era, media faced “Subversion Law” or ‘Banning of the Press’, or ‘telephone call’ which we called ‘budaya telepon’ (telephone culture). Soeharto used these tools as a deterrence to control politics and the media.


For example, one ministers or high rank military phoned newspaper not to publish a military plane crash, before we knew there was a crash. In the early of 1990s, “Monitor”, the biggest tabloid in Indonesia had been banned because it put Prophet Mohammad at number 8 in the list of 10 most popular people. Arswendo Atmowiloto, Chief Editor of Monitor sentenced to jail for 5 years, fined $5,000. In 1995, trial for dissident intellectual Permadi Satrio Wiwoho.


However, what were considered sacred in the Soeharto’s era were not Islam, but his policies and families. Newspapers were strictly restricted to mention or criticize these two areas. In 1994, Soeharto banned “Tempo” and “Editor” magazine and “DeTik” tabloid because of their report on ‘something behind’ Habibie’s policy to buy used ship from Germany. Such situation continued in the Habibie’s era.


President Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur brought a lot of changes. Especially for the media. Press freedom was really happened in this era. No more telephone, no more banning, nor subversion law. Unfortunately, less than one year, Megawati Soekarnoputri replaced him. She did not use the banning of the press, but did not like to talk or to meet the press. What considered holy and sacred in this era was not much different from Soeharto’s.


President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and Vice President Jusuf Kalla (JK), seem to bring Indonesia back to the Soeharto’s era. Not friendly enough with critics, but used banning of the press in a different way. “Republik BBM (Benar-Benar Mabok/Deeply Drunken Republic)”, TV Show which was a parody of SBY-JK government, suddenly disappeared. Though, JK denied the assumption of his government interference, still, the parody is no longer showed on TV.


For us, the “9/11 attack” continued by US invasion to Afghanistan and Iraq was only caused of the rising of Islam and the awakening of the fundamentalist. After the attack, Islamic militant groups like the FPI (Front Pembela Islam/Islamic Movement Front), The Mujahiddin, Gerakan Pemuda Hizbullah (Hizbullah Youth Movement), and even an ethnical militant group like FBR (Forum Betawi Rempug), have stronger power than the government. Betawi is the Jakarta’s original ethnic.


They seems to have legal right to abandon and reject all new churches proposals, burning and closing down churches, and dismissing monthly “Holy Mary” prayer in Yogyakarta. The closing down of “St. Bernadette Catholic Church” in Ciledug, Jakarta, where I belong to, in 2004, was one example of their power. It happened since 2002, where 9 churches were burning down, 5 churches destroyed, continued in 2004 where 2 churches were closed and in 2005, 4 churches were also closed.


But, none of them even goes to jail or to be questioned. And the media can only write a very tiny fact on this problem. Because, what the media is facing now, is no longer banning of the press or such a subversion law, but a threat of 30-40 militants with knife or Kukri (Gurkha’s long knife).




Is there any press freedom in Indonesia? Yes! Our constitution guarantees the freedom of speech. Article 28 of the Constitution said, “Kemerdekaan berserikat dan berkumpul, mengeluarkan pikiran dengan lisan dan tulisan dan sebagainya, ditetapkan dengan Undang-undang.” (Freedom of association and assembly, of verbal and written expression and the like, shall be prescribed by law).


More than that, press freedom has been guaranteed since 1966, by UU No. 11 Tahun 1966. Article 4 said, “National Press is free from censorship and banning.” But, once again, it is only on the Constitution and Law.


Though our Constitution guarantee freedom of worship through Article 29, on blasphemy case, we have Section 156(a) of the Indonesian Criminal Code which prohibits conduct that affronts a “recognized religion” (identified as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Roman Catholicism or Protestantism). Section 19 of the Main Press Ordinance 1982 prohibits publication of blasphemous material, permitting prosecution of authors and publishers and withdrawal of the publishing license.


In my opinion, should we choose press freedom when there were 30-40 militants who were ready to set fire to our office? Or, should we choose freedom of speech if we have to hurt our neighbors on their belief? Shouldn’t we love than hurting them?


Regarding the principle of our foundation, the “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Diversity in Unity), I agree with Jakob Oetama’s opinion. In one of his books, he said, individual freedom is highly respected and guaranteed in Indonesia, but it has to be done in the spirit of collective freedom. “Semangatnya berbeda dengan semangat konstitusi negara-negara Barat yang lebih menjamin kebebasan individu,” he said. (The spirit is different from Western Constitution which respects more on individual freedom)[1].




From Indonesian point of view, reprinting the cartoons in order to make a point about free speech is an act of senseless brinkmanship. What more important here is responsibility in using right of freedom in the spirit of tolerance and mutual understanding. In a free country, people should be free to publish whatever they want within the limits set by law.


What I find particularly disturbing is a lack of appreciation that such works would hand to a small pocket of extremists’ ammunition with which to fulfill their own agenda. This is where the judgment to publish and republish has failed us all.


I think, the international community must not come out of the cartoon crisis broken and divided. We need to build more bridges between religions, civilizations, and cultures. Let’s cultivate democracies of freedom and tolerance, not democracies of freedom versus tolerance. It is tolerance that protects freedom, harnesses diversity, strengthens peace and delivers progress.


[1] Oetama, Jakob, Perspektif Pers Indonesia, LP3ES, Jakarta, 1987, page 79

* Rien Kuntari is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia since 1991 until now. Covered international issues until 2004, she’s made journalistic visits to more than 50 countries in Asia, Europe, America, Africa, and the Middle East. She was a war correspondent for Gulf War (Iraq 1991), Rwanda War (1994), Iraq Referendum (1995 and 2002), Cambodia (1996) and East Timor until its independence (1992-1999-2002). She was an Indonesian presidential correspondent from Soeharto to Abdurrahman Wahid. In this paper, she shares her own experience.