MALANG, Indonesia — Yusman Roy, a former boxer and a convert to Islam, is serving two years in prison because he believes that Muslims should pray in a language they can understand.
Roy, who led bilingual prayer sessions at his small East Java boarding school, is seen as a heretic by conservative Muslims here. They believe true prayer can be conducted only in Arabic.
Roy's desire to pray in Indonesian has sparked such an outrage that he was convicted last year in criminal court of "spreading hatred." Animosity toward Roy ran so high that police posted guards to keep an angry mob from torching his house and school.
Now, he is kept in a cell by himself at overcrowded Lowokwaru prison, and the warden has warned him not to preach to his fellow inmates in any language.
Roy is one of at least 10 Muslims incarcerated in recent months for what the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, the country's most influential Muslim body in setting religious policy, has deemed deviant thinking.
"The government and the council have been working together to suppress my ideas," Roy said during an interview in prison. "But this will not stop me from doing what I believe."
Indonesia is a democratic, secular country, and there is no constitutional basis for using Islamic law in court in most regions. But insulting a religion is a crime, and a \o7fatwa\f7, or religious edict, issued by the Council of Ulemas can carry great weight as evidence of an alleged offense to Islam.
Indonesia, which has more than 190 million Muslims, the world's largest Islamic population, has become increasingly conservative since the 1998 collapse of President Suharto's military regime. In recent years, the government has grown more active in enforcing religious law.
In recent months, \o7fatwas\f7 issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulemas and its regional councils denouncing clerics and cults as deviant have been followed by arrests, prosecution and sometimes mob violence against the accused.
Sumardi Tappaya, 60, a high school religious teacher on the island of Sulawesi, was locked up in January after a relative told police he had heard Sumardi whistling while he prayed. The whistling was declared deviant by the local ulemas, and Sumardi is now in jail awaiting trial on charges of religious blasphemy. He faces five years in prison.
Ardhi Husain, 50, who ran an Islamic center in East Java that treated drug addiction and cancer with traditional medicine and prayer, was sentenced in September to five years in prison for writing a book that the ulemas said contained 70 "errors," such as claiming that Muhammad was not the last prophet and that non-Muslims could go to heaven. Five editors of the book also received five-year terms. An employee who sold a copy to a neighbor received three years.
After Husain's arrest, a mob burned down his facility. No one has been arrested in the attack.
Lia Aminuddin, 58, who claims to be the Virgin Mary and leads the quasi-Islamic God's Kingdom of Eden cult, was arrested in December on blasphemy charges after thousands of angry protesters surrounded her headquarters in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. The ulemas and demonstrators accused her of insulting Islam by claiming that she was married to the archangel Gabriel and that God spoke to her through him. (In Islam, Gabriel, or Jibril, is revered as the archangel who communicated God's word to Muhammad.)
Prominent human rights lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, whose Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation represents several of the accused, says the government is ignoring zealots who commit religious violence and instead prosecuting the targets of religious hatred.
"The intolerance is becoming worse," Nasution said. "Why are the victims being punished?"
Fighting between Muslims and Christians has claimed thousands of lives in Indonesia in recent years, and Islamic suicide bombers have staged high-profile attacks in Bali and Jakarta that have killed hundreds. Less visible has been the effort by conservative Muslims to compel other members of their faith to hew to a more traditional line.
The Indonesian Council of Ulemas, which is made up of 43 Muslim scholars and leaders of major Islamic organizations, was formed in 1975 to guide Muslims on how to live in accordance with Islamic principles. Muslims make up more than 85% of the nation's population.
The council has recently issued \o7fatwas\f7 banning women from leading prayers if a man is present and prohibiting Muslims from praying alongside members of other religions. Provincial and local branches of the council also have issued numerous \o7fatwas \f7regulating Islamic practices.
Ma'ruf Amin, a vice chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas and the chairman of its \o7fatwa \f7committee, says the ulemas' role is to define proper behavior for Muslims and to set boundaries that protect the purity of Islam.
He denies that the ulemas are promoting hatred, and says Muslims who engage in deviant practices are bringing violence upon themselves.