Indonesian pluralism should be guided by principles not politics

by Irfan Abubakar
Jakarta - Muslims in Indonesia have long been accustomed to religious diversity. But such diversity is accepted merely as fact, not as a guiding principle. The future of pluralism in Indonesia is, unfortunately, still determined by political negotiations between religious and state elites, not by principles recognised by all religious followers. Consequently, religious tolerance in Indonesia stands on fragile ground.

As a country with more than 17,000 islands, its diversity is not only reflected in its natural resources, but also in the ethnicity, language and religion of its people. Before Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and other world religions arrived in the country, inhabitants had their own belief systems, which are still practiced in several tribal communities today.

To manage this diversity, Indonesia’s founding fathers in 1945 decided on a common platform: Pancasila, which comprises the five core principles of religiosity, humanity, unity, democracy and social justice. These principles govern public life. The significant role of religion in public life is recognised by the first principle, “belief in one supreme God”, but this principle does not uphold any particular religion, even Islam – the religion of the majority – as state ideology.

The Indonesian constitution (also written in 1945) ensures the freedom of every citizen to practice his or her faith. It declares that “the state guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief” (Article 29).

However, in practice, the state only guarantees the freedom of certain religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism and, more recently, Confucianism. Other religions and local belief systems are not acknowledged as legitimate religions.

Even currently recognised faiths were not always so. A ban on Confucianism, which began in 1967, was only lifted in 2000. During President Suharto’s 1965-1998 New Order administration – which was dominated by the military and characterised by a weakened civil society – followers of Confucius, and those adhering to local religions, were asked to identify with one of the religions recognised by the government on their national identity card.

Since 2006, however, those who follow religions that are not officially recognised by the state are no longer obliged to list one of the state-recognised religions on their identity cards, though they are not yet allowed to list their own particular faith either.

Additionally, according to Indonesia’s criminal code, the state has the authority to investigate any groups that are suspected of violating religious doctrines and punish the perpetrators. Investigations are conducted by the Coordinating Team for Monitoring Public Religious Cults and Sects, which comprises various government agencies and religious elites.

The lack of synchronicity between the constitution’s ideals and the government’s policies in the past means that post-Suharto administrations have not had a clear policy on the treatment of groups that are considered to be outside of the mainstream, such as the Ahmadiyya, whose members believe the Messiah returned in the 19th century as founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, or the Lia Eden Congregation, a small sect that combines elements of Islam and Christianity.

Since 1998, as people began to feel comfortable publicly expressing their religious identities, these groups became more visible. Some more mainstream religious groups, claiming to defend orthodoxy, saw their emergence as a threat, often leading to violence as each group tried to maintain their influence. In June 2008, for example, a Muslim vigilante group that claimed to defend Islam led attacks on Indonesian Ahmadiyya communities.

Responding to this crisis, the government released a Joint Ministerial Decree from the Minister of Religious Affairs, the General Attorney and the Minister of Home Affairs, prohibiting Ahmadis from spreading their teachings in order to “maintain religious harmony and public order”.

Another example of the absence of clear policy is when the government refrained from taking a position on a fatwa, or legal opinion, issued by the Indonesian Ulama Council in 2005 prohibiting Muslims from “following ideas of pluralism, liberalism and secularism”. According to this edict, Muslims are not allowed to acknowledge the truth of other religions, use reasoning to understand the Qur'an or relegate religion to only private affairs, clearly contradicting the principles of diversity that shape the foundation of Indonesia as a state.

These examples show that the management of diversity in Indonesia, based on the interest of keeping social harmony, has sacrificed religious freedom and civil rights.

Currently, the parliament is discussing the possibility of revising the criminal code. This is an opportunity for civil society to advocate amending the article allowing for investigation and punishment of groups suspected of violating religious doctrines to protect every citizen from intimidation or violence when it comes to their religious freedom.

Genuine social harmony will not be realised by silencing diversity; it can only be attained when the rights of every citizen are upheld and every group is free from religious discrimination. For this to happen, the state must be impartial to religious doctrines.


* Irfan Abubakar is a programme coordinator for conflict resolution and peace studies at the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) at Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta. This article is part of a series on pluralism in Muslim-majority countries written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 4 August 2009,
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Other articles in this series

Reviving Pakistan's founding principles by Haroon Nasir
Islamic tradition and religious pluralism by Maher Y. Abu-Munshar
Saudi Arabia's push for religious dialogue by Fahad Alhomoudi
Religious pluralism in today's Muslim world by Asma T. Uddin
Lebanese sectarianism a mixed blessing by Luna Farhat