Apr 21, 2018 Last Updated 11:42 PM, Apr 19, 2018

One Step Forward


Robin Bush

Indonesians have made gains and had losses in their freedom of religion over the past couple of years, levelling out slightly ahead at the end of 2006. Religious freedom is clearly stated in the constitution. However, national and regional laws and regulations that elaborate on this constitutional freedom are more problematic. In some cases they are more of a threat to, than a protection of, religious freedoms. In addition, the police and the military have sometimes enforced the legislation in a heavy-handed manner.

The sanctioned six

The Constitution of Indonesia, Article 29(2), states, ‘The state guarantees the right of all citizens to worship according to his or her own religion or belief.’ However, a presidential edict by Sukarno in 1965 limited the number of official religions recognised by the government of Indonesia to only six — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. For most of the New Order, Confucianism was not recognised in practice. A major gain in religious freedom in Indonesia was the official recognition of Confucianism in a speech by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in February 2006.

While the recognition of Confucianism is a significant and long fought-for development, the six religions now recognised by the government do not begin to cover the breadth of religious variation in Indonesia. The latest official census data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2000 reports that 88 per cent of Indonesians classify themselves as Muslim, 5.9 per cent as Protestant, 3.1 per cent as Catholic, 1.8 per cent as Hindu and 0.2 per cent as ‘other’. This final category encompasses not only the now-recognised Confucians, but also a wide range of minority religions — although some people from minority religions also may have classified themselves under one of the official religions. These minority religions include indigenous beliefs like Naurus in Maluku; Kepercayaan in Kalimantan, Papua and Java; Kaharingan in Kalimantan; Sunda Wiwitan in West Java; and Tolotang in South Sulawesi. The government recognises some of these beliefs, like Kepercayaan, as ‘cultural organisations’ rather than religions. Followers of other minority beliefs, like the Sikhs, often choose to register as Hindu on their identity cards (KTP) in order to receive government services.

People whose beliefs fall outside the sanctioned six faiths are often denied services and basic constitutional rights. Minority religious groups have reported long delays and difficulties in receiving a KTP. Islam is the only religion for which a KTP applicant does not have to present proof of her or his religion. Non-Muslim KTP applicants have been charged ‘extra’ payments or endured long delays. Without a KTP it is almost impossible to get a job, register a wedding, register a birth or be admitted to a hospital. The government often turns a blind eye to this discrimination, though the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) has made an effort to address the issue.

Most recently, Komnas HAM, civil rights groups and some parliamentarians have strongly protested against a civil registration bill that would not allow members of ‘traditional’ beliefs, or those falling outside the six ‘official’ religions, to list their faith on their KTPs. This would make legal the discriminatory practices already widespread against these groups. Despite strong protests by minority rights groups, the bill was passed in early December 2006.

Even within the ‘sanctioned six’, official policy can sometimes be used to control what is or is not acceptable practice within a certain religion. Sukarno’s 1965 presidential edict, later reinforced by Suharto with Law No. 5 of 1969, makes it illegal to slander, interpret falsely or promote teachings which ‘depart from the core teachings’ of any of the state-recognised religions. More recently, proposed revisions to the criminal code (RUU KUHP) add eight clauses criminalising a wide range of offences against religion — including ridiculing religions, seeking to change ‘core beliefs’ or proselytisation. This bill widens the scope for police to ‘protect’ religion — or the sanctioned six religions — rather than freedom of religion per se. Moreover, it prohibits any practices deemed to be ‘outside the mainstream’ of a sanctioned religion. This means police often make the decisions about what is orthodox Islamic practice in Indonesia, as seen recently where police arrested religious leaders for not practising ‘correct’ Islam — one was whistling during prayers, another was leading prayers in Javanese rather than Arabic.

Houses of worship

Another contentious and problematic piece of legislation with regard to freedom of religion is the revision of the 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree on the Construction of Houses of Worship. The decree was seen to discriminate against minority religions, therefore an effort was made to overhaul it (see Ismatu Ropi’s article in this issue for further discussion of this decree). Unfortunately many, though not all, activists feel that the revisions actually further limit religious freedom.

The events that led to the 1969 decree being revised are significant in themselves. From mid-2005 to early 2006 Indonesia experienced a spate of church closures. According to Christian groups, up to 40 churches were forcibly closed during this time, primarily in West Java, Banten and Central Java. In addition, interfaith organisations had documented up to 140 churches and Christian schools that were forcibly closed, burned down or attacked between 1996 and early 2005. Many of these were linked to the flaring of interfaith tensions in East Java in 1996–97 as well as sectarian violence in Ambon, Poso, Lombok and Flores, and they generally represent an underlying fear on the part of many Indonesian Muslims of an ongoing campaign of ‘Christianisation’ in Indonesia. This fear has roots in Indonesia’s colonial heritage, when Christian missionary work was condoned, and more recently in the New Order’s systematic discrimination against santri Muslims.

Most of the closures and attacks since 2005 occurred in West Java and Banten and were carried out by a group called AGAP (Anti-Apostate Movement), which is a coalition of 27 different organisations including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Persis Youth Front, Hizbut Tahrir and Jama’ah Tabligh. Representatives of the AGAP movement, and indeed many of the local police and local and national government officials (including Minister of Religion Maftuh Basyuni), insist that there have been no forcible church closures. Rather, they state that the law is being upheld, and that only congregations meeting (illegally) in private homes, commercial centres or churches without proper building licences have been shut down.

The controversy around the church closures became so heated that the 1969 decree was revisited. Nevertheless while, as Ropi’s article explains, the changes are not themselves unproblematic, this is an instance of the democratic process being followed and citizens pushing their representatives to fix (or at least try to fix) faulty legislation. At the same time, leaders of the major Muslim mass organisations who opposed the actions of smaller, fringe groups like AGAP met in Bandung in late 2005 to seek a resolution to the problem. At this meeting, these Muslim leaders urged the local police to prosecute any illegal action by AGAP. Thus, while the 2006 Joint Ministerial Decision is only a slight improvement on the old one, both legislative and informal conflict mediation have been at least partially successful in resolving a difficult situation.

Legislating discrimination

Enough autonomy and resources have been devolved through decentralisation to local levels to mean that it has been more successful than many observers predicted, and is a democratising force in Indonesia. However, it has also allowed local officials and parliamentarians to issue discriminatory and anti-democratic regulations and legislation. Local leaders began issuing syariah-influenced by-laws and regulations in the early part of this decade, but the amount of this legislation has increased in the last few years. There are now more than 30 districts which have such by-laws. These range from prohibiting prostitution, alcohol or gambling; to restricting women’s mobility at night and regulating women’s dress. Some districts have by-laws closing public roads during Friday prayers. Other districts require proof of Qur’anic literacy before issuing marriage licenses, or admitting students to state universities. Most of these by-laws apply only to Muslims, so advocates deny that these are discriminatory. However, by simply marking non-Muslims as ‘different’ — for example in a school where female Muslim students are required to wear jilbab — the lone non-Muslim students are singled out for different treatment by students and teachers alike. Further, some Muslim women themselves feel discriminated against by these by-laws, arguing that they formalise only one interpretation of Islamic teachings, and that alternative views are not accorded freedom of expression.

Many Indonesian democracy activists (and international observers) are increasingly concerned about this phenomenon. But evidence indicates that the issuance of restrictive syariah-nuanced by-laws results more from regional officials’ weak capacity than from deeply-held religious convictions. With direct elections of district heads, officials are feeling under pressure, often for the first time, to be accountable to their constituencies. They need to produce tangible results, quickly. And in many instances, they lack the technical capacity to address the welfare and economic needs of their communities, such as drafting substantive legislation on health insurance schemes for the poor, or to effectively manage budgets. So they fall back on what is commonly thought to be a sure-fire winner — a syariah-related bill. Other times they are simply paying back political debts or jockeying for position on legislative committees.

Anti-pornography bill and dialogue about ‘Indonesianness’

Most recently, controversy swirled and national groups demonstrated both for and against a proposed Anti-Pornography and Porno-Action Bill. The legislation would have criminalised not only publications (print and audio-visual) and performances but also dress (baring shoulders and legs) and behaviour (kissing in public). One of many protests to this bill featured a parade of Indonesians wearing their local ethnic dress, all of which would be criminalised by the bill. Due to public outcry, the bill was eventually withdrawn for revision.

The bill has, however, inspired a national debate and dialogue about what it means to be Indonesian, which has ultimately underscored Indonesians’ intrinsic commitment to the pluralism and diversity in their societies. It is to be expected that a nation as diverse as Indonesia would experience the push-and-pull of religious expression and identity. Somewhat worrying has been the effort to formalise religious discrimination legislatively. The other side of that coin, however, has been the welcome galvanisation of Indonesia’s mainstream majority in defence of pluralism and religious freedom. As 2007 begins in Indonesia, the pendulum of religious freedom seems to be somewhat on the upswing; a trend hopefully to be continued throughout the year.

Robin Bush (rbush@tafindo.org ) is the Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Indonesia.


Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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