The Challenge to Religious Liberty in Indonesia

Report Asia

The Challenge to Religious Liberty in Indonesia

June 1, 2009 4 min read Download Report
Richard Kraince

The widespread growth of faith-based social movements over the past two decades has convinced many observers of the significance of religious activism as a driving force behind social change in many parts of the globe. This is certainly the case in Indonesia--the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation and, since 1999, its third-largest democracy. Indonesian Islamic activists have recently received considerable attention from development organizations for encouraging participation in public policymaking, promoting government accountability, and otherwise contributing to democratic reform.

At the same time, the country's transition to democracy has been marked by the emergence of powerful Islamic interest groups aiming to dominate the legislative process, exert strict control over Muslims' private lives, and diminish the rights of minorities. As the government has been inconsistent in upholding constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, it remains unclear whether Indonesia's democratization process will continue to lead to greater liberty for its citizens or encourage forms of Islamic integralism that reject pluralism and ultimately deny individual rights.

Deep Divisions. Since roughly 86 percent of Indonesia's 240 million people identify themselves at least nominally as Muslim--approximating nearly two-thirds of the Muslim population of the entire Arab League--it is not surprising that Islam has proved to be one of the most potent sociopolitical forces influencing public opinion and affecting the actions of the political elite. Politicians and activist groups have frequently explained their ideas in Islamic terms, employed Islamic symbols, and appealed to the public in the name of their religion. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the raucous debate over the position of Islam in Indonesian society that has persisted since the reform period began in 1998, deep divisions remain over the cultural identity of the nation as well as the nature of the Indonesian state.

Within Islamic circles, two overlapping social movements have vied ardently for dominance since the reform period began. The first has called for the establishment of a pluralistic democracy based on tolerance, social justice, and a strong civil society. The second has promoted Islam as a political ideology aiming for sectarian control of the state--a phenomenon referred to as Islamism. Emphasizing moral reform, Islamists advocate the complete Islamization of Indonesian society through the imposition of Islamic law (sharia) on the nation's immense Muslim population as well as the establishment of Saudi-style social norms for the rest of the country.

The principal goal of this paper is to assess the Indonesian government's performance in protecting basic rights and freedoms as it faces a determined and multi-pronged effort to impose religiously inspired restrictions on the population. It is also intended to inform debate on U.S. policy toward Indonesia as the Obama Administration begins to work out a new platform for relations with countries where Islam is a cogent political force.

Religious Persecution. Some of the most troubling instances of religious violence involve the harassment of religious minorities and the forcible closure of their places of worship. For several years, Islamist militia groups have waged a systematic campaign against minority Muslim groups whose interpretation of Islam differs from the Sunni orthodoxy favored by militant ideologues.

A few of these raids targeted Indonesia's tiny Shia community. Most of the attacks, however, were directed at members of the Ahmadiyah movement, who differ from the majority of Muslims in their belief that the prophet Mohammed was not the last to speak the word of God on Earth. One of the most troubling aspects of these crimes is that local authorities did little to prevent the attacks and failed to prosecute those responsible.

Words Matter. For his part, President Obama has repeatedly declared his intentions to forge better relations with Muslim-majority nations around the globe. He seeks to reach Muslims directly through public diplomacy efforts and has demonstrated a serious interest in broadening dialogue with Muslim leaders. Unfortunately, the President's choice of words in describing his otherwise laudable plans to engage Muslim populations is problematic for Indonesians. In his first interview as President conducted with Al Arabiya television news on January 27, 2009, President Obama reminded viewers that he has lived in "Muslim countries"--specifically in Indonesia, which he describes as the largest country in the "Muslim world."

Having attended school in Indonesia, President Obama need not be reminded that Indonesia does not officially call itself a "Muslim country." The Republic of Indonesia is a religiously diverse nation based on the principles of Pancasila, which includes belief in God, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy through deliberation, and social justice.

It is true that Indonesia is home to the world's largest population of Muslims, with some 206 million of its 240 million citizens describing themselves as followers of Islam. But unlike some countries in the Middle East and South Asia where the followers of other religions have been almost completely driven out, Indonesia remains home to millions of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of other faiths. President Obama's reference to their homeland as a "Muslim country" is a disappointment to these minorities, who have seen their nation's tradition of tolerance come under attack from religious extremists. It also ignores the efforts of countless Muslims who have struggled to maintain Indonesia's non-sectarian orientation.

Conclusion. The Indonesia that President Obama knew as a child, with its culture of pluralism and constitutional protections for religious freedom, provides an important model of religious diversity. His Administration should act quickly to support that tradition. It can begin by sharply curtailing the use of rhetoric that carelessly describes diverse regions based on the faith of dominant groups.

Islamist propaganda aside, very few of the world's Muslims live in societies that can be neatly labeled "the Muslim world." The Palestinians and the Israelis may need a two-state solution to overcome their trauma. One must hope that President Obama and other world leaders will be more creative in forging an international relations paradigm that will help transcend the dichotomies based on religion that fuel so many ongoing conflicts.

Richard Kraince is Research Professor of Southeast Asian Humanities at the College of Mexico in Mexico City.


Richard Kraince