Religious Freedom Coming to Indonesia?

Religious Freedom Coming to Indonesia? November 11, 2014

Indonesia is the largest predominantly Muslim country in the world and it has a long track record of brutal suppression of non-Muslim beliefs. But they have a new leader now and he is promising to protect the rights of religious minorities, including atheists.

After years of abuse, violence, and marginalisation by the Sunni majority under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s new government has decided to protect the religious freedom of all Indonesian citizens.

The newly elected head of state, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and his government, especially the Interior and the Religious Affairs ministers, want to protect the freedom of all minority groups – Shias, Ahmadis, Protestants, Catholics and atheists – in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

As they fend off attacks from Muslim fundamentalists, President Jokowi and his team already embody a new message of hope in Indonesia after less than a month on the job.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim has taken the first step towards genuine religious freedom. Last week, he announced a series of reforms that would remove barriers to the free practice of religion for non-Muslim communities.

A new law, meant to protect minority groups from extremist attacks and provocations, should be ready “within six months” and ensure that all citizens have the same “rights in matters of religion enshrined in the Constitution of 1945.”

If this actually happens, it will be very good news. Of course, atheists there will still have to fear attack by angry mobs of Muslims.

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  • doublereed

    Considering it’s the most populous muslim-majority country, it could reverberate across the muslim world quite powerfully. Very positive news.

  • cottonnero

    Enforcement will be the tricky thing, even if the government is entirely behind the move. Will they be willing to prosecute the first time some religious-based lynching happens?

  • Normally I’d say, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but not even then on this one. Sometimes those who promise change just go through the motions and then revert back to bad habits. I suspect Indonesia will end up being like Russia and LGBTQ rights from the fall of communism until now, i.e. a short window of positive movement between two oppressive regimes..

  • grumpyoldfart

    As soon as the Muslim lobby groups either withhold their bribes (or increase them) Jokowi will forget all about those promises.

  • iangould

    First, let’s start by noting that Ed is quoting uncritically from a Catholic publication.

    Second, since 1945, Indonesia’s official state ideology has been” Pancasila” – the “Five Pillars” or “Five Principles of Co-Existence.” As the co-existence bit suggests, the objective is to keep a country divided on ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic lines united.

    In this context, the important principle is Monotheism. Atheism is illegal in Indonesia. Your ID card must bear the stamp of one of the five recognized religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Protestantism. (“Belief in one God” is interpreted broadly enough that Hindu/Buddhist belief in the Atman or a creator spirit gets them in.) The fact that Catholicism and Protestantism are counted as separate religions tells you something too – the larger Protestant community is based in the lesser Sundas which were first settled by the Dutch and followed a form of Dutch Lutheranism. The Catholics are primarily descended from areas proselytized by the Spanish or Portugese. The objective here isn’t theological purity, it’s keeping disparate groups from trying to kill each other.

    (A historical sidenote: The KNIL, the Dutch-era military heavily over-represented Christians. Christian military officers played an important role in the independence struggle and in the Sukarno era military dictatorship. Indonesian Christians are not, typically, an oppressed minority. They’ve played a disproportionately large role in the country’s politics and economy. Murdani, Suharto’s Defense Minister and de facto deputy was a Christian. Earlier, he was the field commander when Indonesia invaded Christian-majority Dutch New Guinea and incorporated it into Indonesia. As Defense Minister he oversaw the invasion of Christian-majority East Timor.)

    It’s easy to say everything is a form of Fascism but Pancasila has some elements which closely resemble Fascism. Everybody (including the dominant Javanese) has to learn the new national language, Bahasa Indonesia based on Malay. You can subscribe to any of the five recognized religions – and only the five recognized religions. If you speak Bahasa, conform religiously and hold to the other four principles – democracy, social justice, internationalism and Indonesian nationalism -then, in theory, you’re as good as any other Indonesian regardless of whether you’re Ambonese, Javanese, Indian, Chinese or European etc.

    The principal targets of religious discrimination in Indonesia historically have not been Christians After the 1965 coup, Chinese Indonesians were targeted as suspected Communists and it was argued that Taoism, Confucianism and Traditional Chinese Beliefs weren’t Monotheistic. The other group that has repeatedly been discriminated against and attacked has been heterodox Muslim groups such as the Ahmadis who have been denounced as Takfiri by religious authorities.

    In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s there was significant communal violence in Indonesia following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. Much of that violence was directed at emigrants from Java to the outer Islands and perpetrated by local people who’d been displaced to make room for the emigrants. (This was part of the Transmigrasi policy of forcibly relocating people off Java to reduce crowding and simultaneously make outer Islands more ethnicly homogenous.) Much of this violence involved Christian Dayaks, Bugis and Sundanese attacking Muslims and on occasion it took on specifically religious overtones.

    Violence and discrimination on the part of the Muslim majority against Christians has actually been pretty rare.

    So let’s sum up:

    1. A form of limited religious tolerance has been in place in Indonesia since 1945. Jokowi is just restating this – as every Indonesian President does. Discrimination and persecution, primarily directed at the Ahmadi and Baha’i communities will probably continue.

    2. Indonesia has a complex and violent history incorporating colonialism, a long-standing military dictatorship and separatist military campaigns (still ongoing in Papua, supposedly now resolved in Aceh and East Timor). Indonesians have actually done a pretty good job of sorting out the mess the Dutch left them and the aftermath of the CIA-backed 1965 coup which led to up to 2 million deaths. They now seem to have a pretty robust democracy. They have a free press. Most Indonesians, most of the time, don;t have to worry about religious violence or discrimination.

    3. When you know essentially nothing about a country other than that it’s full of EEEvillll Moose-limbs, it might be a good idea not to take articles from religiously-based sites at face value.

  • iangould

    “Considering it’s the most populous muslim-majority country, it could reverberate across the muslim world quite powerfully. Very positive news.”

    This is unlikely for a variety of reasons.

    Firstly, there’s Muslims and there’s Muslims. Most Indonesian Muslims, while nominally Sunni, practise what’s known as Adat Islam, a syncretic religion which incorporates Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and native Animist elements. Santri Muslims, who practise orthodox mainstream Sunni Islam make up about only 10% of the population. Indonesian religious leaders such as the late Gus Dur or Amien Rais have limited influence outside the country despite their huge domestic support bases. There’s also limited cultural and religious exchange between Indonesia and the Middle East. There’s a major language barrier – even many Indonesian Mullahs arent; fluent in classical let alone modern Arabic.

    Secondly. as I pointed out above, this is not new. It’s a repetition of what has been the official policy of repeated Indonesian governments since 1945 and, in any case, doesn’t refer to what westerners would consider religious freedom.

  • The anti-Atheist views in Indonesia also relate to their anti-communist/red scare and anti-Chinese views. It was only about a decade ago that they finally removed restrictions on public displays of Chinese culture. The things I find out from my atheist Chinese-Indonesian friends…

  • Just noticed iangould gave more detail than I did. Indonesia is somewhat like Iran in that there’s a small handful of recognized religions and others are left out. I could almost see them recognizing atheism but continuing to suppress non-Christian, non-Muslim, non-Hindu, non-Buddhist beliefs.. and continuing to give the recognized non-Muslim beliefs second class status.