On August 17th, 1945, standing atop the steps of his modest verandah, the mononymous Javanese revolutionary Sukarno declared the independence of Indonesia. The announcement signified the belated liberation of the Indonesian islands from over 300 years of Dutch colonial rule and Japanese occupation during World War II. In practice, however, enormous obstacles remained. It would require a long and sanguinary revolution to permanently dispel the Netherlands and attain their official recognition. Further, internal Communist and Islamic movements compounded the difficulty of uniting the world’s largest archipelago. As the New York Times’ editorial board wrote on November 15th, 1946 [italics added]: “Japan’s ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ has collapsed, but a new one, along democratic lines, may rise. This is the beginning of a future the end of which is veiled.” The prescience of this final word was, perhaps, more accurate than the editors intended.
Fast-forward to today, near the 68th anniversary of Indonesian independence, and one finds a nation of contrast. Despite that the 1945 Constitution guaranteed to all citizens the right to practice their religion, the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) raids food outlets during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Despite claims by the likes of Hillary Clinton and David Cameron that Indonesia represents the paragon of Muslim democracy, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) ranked Indonesia’s judicial system the most corrupt in Asia. And despite judicial chief Mahfud MD’s recent reassurance that “the Constitutional Court has guaranteed the freedom of atheists and communists in this country,” as if the two were synonymous, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was sentenced to two and a half years in prison last year for stating on Facebook that God does not exist.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a nation of 237.6 million, almost 90% of which are Muslim, struggles to repel the influence of ultra-conservative Islamic factions. Indeed, Indonesia’s pseudo-secular government has dealt with such pressure since it’s founding. Yet the pervasiveness of ultra-conservative Islam and religious intolerance is expanding significantly. The cancellation of American pop singer Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta was just the most recent in a string of events signaling the government’s inability to stand against intolerant political groups. In a May 21st New York Times Op-ed, Benedict Rogers wrote of increasing violence against Indonesia’s Christian minority and the Ahmadiyya Muslims. A member of the latter, considered a sacrilegious sect by conservative Muslims, described being “stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat.”
Unfortunately, the source of Indonesia’s deteriorating capacity to repel radical minority thought is deeply routed. The official political philosophy of the state, formulated by Sukarno to unify the various Indonesian islands in order to repel colonial rule, now serves as a justification for divisiveness and oppression. Further, the blurring line between secular and Islamic law has allowed for the imposition of Sharia upon both moderate and non-Muslims. The result: increased violence, decreased foreign investment, and the impediment of Indonesia’s socio-economic advancement.
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Given the multifarious demographics of Indonesia’s 6,000 inhabited islands, Sukarno recognized a need to promote national unity. In 1945, he proposed his solution: Pancasila, now the official political philosophy of Indonesia. Its five tenants form the sections of a shield, stressing democracy, social welfare and nationalism. In the center of the shield, clearly emphasized by the presence of a loud golden star, lies the representation of Pancasila’s first principle: monotheism. As the Indonesian Constitution of 1945 states (Chapter XI, Article 29): “1. The State is based on the belief in the One and Only God.” Although seemingly the antithesis of secular government, Pancasila’s vague commitment to one superior deity was a crafty piece of internal diplomacy. By avoiding the pressure of Muslims to change ‘God’ to ‘Allah,’ Sukarno was able to appease Indonesian Hindus, Buddhists and Christians while unifying the country.
A lasting progression of Pancasila’s first principal is that the Indonesian state only officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. While the Constitution allows for the practice of other religions such as indigenous Animism and Judaism, restrictions are imposed on their legal right to congregate and conduct their respective ceremonies. Further, and perhaps most odiously, Indonesians must list one of the six officially recognized religions on their identification card. Predictably, such a requirement has led to violence; in 2007, Indonesian activist Maya Safira confirmed to Presi Mandari of Agence France-Presse, “People have been killed in sectarian conflict because religion is on the cards.” Compounding the divisive effects of such a requirement is Indonesia’s marriage laws, the interpretation of which has been controversial. Generally it’s assumed that inter-faith marriage is forbidden, and even when legally plausible, registration can be made difficult for those of opposing faiths.
Karl Karnadi, Founder and President of the Indonesian Atheists (IA), told me via email interview that “…historically Pancasila was used to accommodate different ideologies and different groups, to unite them for the purpose of founding the country…It wasn’t meant to be a divisive principle or to violate human rights, so I think it is absurd if it is used in that way today.” In regard to the placement of religion on identification cards, Karnadi concurred that “The ideal case would be having the identification card…without any religion column on it. The reason is obvious, since [a] religious column on identification card[s] is often used as a means of discrimination, both in severe sectarian religious conflict…and also [on a] daily basis like the job application, working place [and] academic environments.”
Karnadi and his fellow atheists face particular challenges given the murky legality of non-belief in Indonesia. The aforementioned Article 29 (Chapter XI) of the 1945 Indonesian Constitution includes a second proclamation: “2. The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.” Freedom of worship and the guarantee of belief should, of course, imply acceptance of the negative. As Karnadi noted, “If the freedom of religion can be guaranteed, I can say I have my own religion called ‘None,’ with one holy book: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Unfortunately, the Indonesian State’s official recognition of only a select, six religions renders such logic null & void. Such a contradiction could be corrected with a change of policy in regard to the official recognition of religion, but given the entrenchment of taboo among Muslims (indeed, most religions) toward atheists and agnostics, the political muscle of conservative political groups, and the inconsistent relationship between secular and Islamic law in Indonesia, progress remains distant.
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In order to effectively govern, a State must maintain domestic sovereignty. Religion, particularly sects that stress a personal relationship between followers and their deity, can challenge and supersede the relationship between citizens and the State. As U.S. Naval Captain Alfred Mahan wrote in an October 1899 article for the North American Review, “…no third party can relieve a man from the obligations of the position to which he is called by God.” This third party was Mahan’s reference to both the aims of States and International Tribunal Courts; neither, he continued, could supplant God’s moral sovereignty, and thus man’s “obligation to do right.”
The history of Islam and the practice of Sharia law in Indonesia greatly pre-date the Republic. Thus the State, while maintaining quasi-religious neutrality in its recognition of six distinct religions, nevertheless has had to strike a balance between secular law and the preference of its overwhelming religious majority. Arskal Salim and Azyumardi Azra, in their introduction to Shari’a and Politics in Modern Indonesia, write:
The goal of the state, according to some Muslim thinkers such as al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, is to realize the shari’a on Earth. The existence of the state to implement the shari’a comprehensively at individual and societal level, therefore, has been deemed a requirement…Implicit within this logic is that all the individual’s and the ummah’s (community) actions and initiations are subject to Allah’s commands and prohibitions (that is, shari’a). Accordingly, the sovereignty neither belongs to the state nor to the ummah, but to the shari’a.
The inconsistent and at times contradictory policy of the Indonesian government toward religious equality reflects the inevitable power struggle between the State and Islam. In 2011, hundreds of Muslims attacked a group of Ahmadiyya Muslims with machetes, rocks and bamboo sticks, killing three. One attacker, caught on amateur video, can be seen deflating the skull of a limp, unmoving body. The verdict: three to six months. The Ministry of Religion—found to be the most corrupt government agency in Indonesia according to a 2011 Public Sector Integrity Survey—approved the decision; the Ministry’s head, Suryadharma Ali, also defended a 2008 decree restricting the right of Ahmadiyya to practice their faith publically.
The disproportionate sentences, rendered further absurd when one recalls the two and half years given to Alexander Aan, exemplify the pervasiveness of religious influence within Indonesia’s judicial and legal institutions. Compounding such pervasiveness is the formal application of Sharia by Aceh, a Northwestern Indonesian province of over four million people. Police forces patrol the streets looking for gamblers, alcohol and premarital sex; woman may be caned for violating bylaws, including the failure to wear the formal Muslim jibab.
Evermore concerning, the influence of conservative Islam is expanding beyond Aceh. Muslim pressure groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front combat initiatives to distribute condoms in Jakarta, despite that Indonesia now suffers from the fastest spreading HIV epidemic in Asia. Transgender couples, profiled by Kate Hodal in an October 2011 report for The Guardian, face enormous medical costs and administrative hurdles to marry. Homosexuality, albeit not deemed illegal by the national Government, remains socially controversial, and in Aceh subject to imprisonment. Thus the fight for greater religious tolerance is connected with a greater battle against oppressive religious conservatism. As Karnadi remarked via interview, “…our future depends on the larger secular and liberal movement. This is exactly why, while I’m an atheist [that] does not believe in any religion, I always speak out against injustices and intolerant actions being done to certain religious group[s] based on their religious affiliations.”
The historical and institutional sources of religious intolerance in Indonesia will prove difficult to alter. Though the majority of moderate Muslims condemn radical factions attempting to impose Sharia law, venal government agencies continue to bow to their pressure. Free speech is restricted; sectarian violence goes unpunished; and legal institutions sway with the fluctuations of national politics. Oppressed minority groups, such as the Indonesian Atheists, face seemingly insurmountable short-term challenges to attain social acceptance and legal equality. Yet their efforts, even if as simple as providing a forum for discussion, may lay the early groundwork for sociopolitical progress in the future. The only question is how long it will take, and at what price.
Miles Kellerman is a senior majoring in political science at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
Photo source: http://djepok.blogspot.com/2010/05/democratic-pancasila.html