07 March 2008

Religious Freedom in Indonesia

Religious freedom in Indonesia or more specifically the lack of it is about to garner some attention at the United Nations Human Rights Council Plenary session currently underway in Geneva. I have written on religious freedom and intolerance in Indonesia previously so feel free to search through the blog to find these postings (if you're interested). However, it is clear that the issue of religious freedom is going to be an issue that at some point in time the Indonesian government is going to have to address. If for no other reason than maintaining social harmony or more specifically to be true to the national motto of "unity in diversity".

Simply, this concept of unity in diversity that is enshrined in the State ideology of 'Pancasila' or the Five Principles is not something that the Indonesian government seems to give much weight to. The first of these principles is the belief in a supreme God. Too bad for any animist tree or mountain or big stone worshippers. Unless of course you can characterize a tree as a supreme God -- good question! The first principle here seems to be tailor-made for the development and expansion of sects with slightly different sets of beliefs.

One of the bigger religious tolerance or intolerance issues to arise has been with regard to the Ahmadiyah sect. This is an Islamic sect that had slightly different interpretations regarding who was in fact the last prophet of Islam. Obviously, this is sure to be controversial but as the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) also determined in a fatwa it issued, ultimately heretical! The issue of the fatwa led to some outbursts of communal violence and attacks against sect members.

The issue here is whether or not the Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The simple answer here is that it does -- yes! Although arguments can be made that despite the guarantee there are no real protective mechanisms built into ensure that this freedom to practice one's faith is maintained in a practical sense. So, despite the probable repercussions of the action it must take, the State needs to come out and say that with all due respect to the MUI (usually translated as no respect at all) that Ahmadiyah and its followers have a constitutional right to practice their faith. However, and somewhat unfortunately, the government decided to accept the MUI interpretation and called in the attack dogs and put the sect under surveillance.

Heresy is a crime in Indonesia, at least in the sense that a creative interpretation of the Criminal Code provisions, Article 156(a) for example, would allow cases to be brought before courts where a different interpretation of the faith is developed and practiced.

Bottom line -- When will the government stand up and be counted on this argument is any one's guess. But the most likely scenario would be not before there was much more widespread violence involved and a real risk to the stability of the broader Indonesian community.

When it is all said and done Indonesia is still a country that burns textbooks that offer a different view of accepted national history, such as the 1965 coup attempt, so if you cannot face your past the ability to face your future is also in question! But, alas, this is a post for another time.


Jakartass said...

Hi Rob.
Sixteen years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week on the island of Siberut with my then fourteen year old English son. Our guide had a rare sensitivity to the indigenous Mentawai and we were thus privy to the rare ceremony of initiation of a shaman.

Although various attempts have been made to convert them to Christianity and, later, Islam - all in the name of Indonesianism so that greedy oligarchs can profit from their forests - there remain pockets of ancient wisdom. I wrote about them here and here.

The Mentawai have no one God because every living thing has its place in their world. As I write this sentence, one of our porters who attends elementary school in the government village of Madobak shows me her school textbook - How To Be A Muslim.

But, she tells me, she still eats pig.

Rob Baiton said...

The interesting part for me has always been the mechanisms that more fundamental interpretations of Islam will use to dominate religious debate in Indonesia.

Gus Dur has written on this in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, if I am not mistaken. The piece was more a critique of the Saudi Wahhabi / Salafi interpretation and the influence worldwide and not only in Indonesia.

But I guess we will see how things pan out over time.