Indonesia is often described in international newspapers as ‘the world’s most populous Muslim nation’, obscuring the fact that the Indonesian state has always been founded on a general ‘belief in God’, with five or six official religions. Indonesianists, on the other hand, have tended to stress that Indonesia is a tolerant, multi-religious society.
The reality lies in between. Eighty-eight per cent of Indonesians identify as Muslim, but the expression of this religion has changed. Until 1991 Indonesian schoolgirls were legally forbidden to wear the jilbab (headscarf) in state schools. By 2006, as Eve Warburton describes, democratisation, decentralisation and greater adherence to a formalistic Islam, has led to some local governments enforcing the jilbab. Individual Muslims deviating from the majority can experience difficulties. Munawar Ahmad details attacks on the Islamic sect, Ahmadiyah. Julia Suryakusuma describes social pressure to wear the jilbab.
For non-Muslims, state recognition of their religion does not guarantee equal status or religious harmony. Indonesian Muslims and Hindus do have public holidays on Christian and Buddhist holy days and vice-versa. But the ethnic and religious conflict in some regions in the late 1990s highlighted the need for religious dialogue. The reinstatement of Confucianism as an official religion is one positive result. The new legislation on houses of worship, as Ismatu Ropi points out, has been less enthusiastically received by Christians (and Muslims). Elizabeth Rhoads describes how the Balinese are embracing a stronger Hindu-Balinese identity, which parallels the rise in Islamic observance elsewhere.
Adherents of minority religions (the 0.2 per cent ‘other’ religions) have experienced little progress in freedom. Robin Bush and Astrid de Hontheim look at the pressure to convert to one of the ‘sanctioned six’. And almost no Indonesians admit they have no religious belief at all.
The Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it’s still freedom within limits.
Helen Pausacker (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a research assistant with the Federation Fellowship project, ‘Islam and Modernity’, at the University of Melbourne.