08 October 2007

Religious Freedom and the Constitution

Religious freedom or tolerance against the inevitable defenders of the last bastions of the "real" religion has raised its head in Indonesia yet again with another sect of Islam known as the Al-Widayah Al-Islamiyah being declared blasphemous by the Majelis Ulema Indonesia or the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). The declaration is a simple one - the teachings of this sect are not those teachings recognised by the MUI as being teachings of Islam. The declaration puts the government in a difficult position as to ignore the declaration exposes it to allegations of being un-Islamic and accepting of divergent teachings of Islam. However, to not support religious freedom in a supposed secular state also brings into question how tolerant Indonesia is of religions other than Islam.

However, this is a generalization as the issue here is really about who determines what are the accepted teachings of Islam, particularly whether Islam permits the formation of sects or branches of Islam that do not teach the generally accepted line. Christianity has not dealt with this either although the increasingly divergent sects within Christianity are testament to at least some degree of tolerance. Nevertheless, the Pope is on record as telling protestants that they are not real Christians and their churches are not real churches but mere 'ecclesial communities'.

The who determines debate brings us to the Constitution and whether or not there really is a protection for the freedom of religion. Article 28E, which is part of what in essence is a Bill of Rights, states explicitly that Indonesian citizens are free to choose a religion and practice it according to their beliefs. The question now is whether a declaration or fatwa issued by the MUI is superior to the guarantees provided in the Constitution or can fatwas only be issued that comply with the provisions of the Constitution. An interesting debate for sure.

It may be questionable as to how much say the government may have in determining what is an acceptable or standard teaching for Islam but the Constitution would clearly seem to suggest that the government is under an obligation to ensure that there is space for Indonesian citizens to practice their respective chosen faith even where a majority disagrees with that faith or the interpretation on which it is based.

The involvement of police in enforcing a fatwa of this nature also gives rise to an interesting legal issue, namely: do the police work for the state or do they work for the MUI. In order to suppress religious practice it would seem that the order should be one issued by the government and then executed through the relevant channels.

The issue is an interesting one and raises interesting points of debate about religious freedom and guarantees under the Constitution. However, to generalize the majority of Indonesians are in fact tolerant of religious difference, they are accepting of these differences, and as such generally believe that tolerance leads to peaceful co-existence. Nevertheless, it is always the case that a loud and militant minority will always tar and feather the whole - fair? Never fair but since when do things have to be fair!


Anggara said...

sometimes even the freedom of religion being protected by the constitution but the main translator of the teaching of Islam is based on the MUI Fatwa. The government and also the judiciary find difficulties on translating the freedom of religion because they too afraid being misunderstood as an enemy of Islam

The Advocate said...

Agreed. Nevertheless, it is interesting how in the future the Government intends to reconcile its obligations under the Constitution to the protection of the freedom of religion and its need to be seen not to be an enemy of Islam. This becomes even more interesting because the MUI has only one concern and that is the 'translator' of the teachings of Islam and there is no need to consider what the Constitution says at least in terms of the Fatwa that they may issue. Finally, the last really interesting issue in this series of interesting issues is the ongoing debate about whether Indonesia is to be a secular or non-secular State in the future. Most do not consider the debate to be a real or even active one, but I believe this to be a debate that is occurring and will continue to do so. Perhaps one of the most obvious indicators of this is the cyclical nature of the Jakarta Charter debate - it comes and goes but never really goes away.

Thanks for the feedback...I appreciate it! Cheers, Rob