It is Indonesia’s proud claim that its 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens. The constitution is based on the country’s national doctrine, known as Pancasila (Five Pillars). It is therefore often held that limiting and obstructing religious freedom in the private and the public space breaches the country’s national foundation and the constitution. Pancasila is often described as a secular doctrine. This is despite that the first of its guiding principles reads “The Belief in The One All-Powerful God”. The other principles are humanitarianism, nationalism, democracy, and social justice.
Indonesia’s constitution pledges to uphold religious freedom in various sections. One article reads: “Every citizen has the right to follow his religion and worship according to his beliefs…” The following article reads: “Every citizen has the right to freedom to adhere to his beliefs…according to his conviction”. The law on ‘human rights’ reaffirms this, reading: “The right to live, the right not to be maltreated, the right to free thought…the right to practise religion…is a human right that cannot be reduced under any circumstance”. It further says: “The protection, progress, implementation, and fulfillment of human rights are the responsibility of the state, in particular the government”.
Besides these sections, Indonesia has laws that are selective on the question of a religious freedom that is absolute. These sections have of late helped to increase the dominance of conservative expressions of the majority religion Islam in the public space, frequently at the expense of minority beliefs. One area is the characteristically Islamic concern for “public decency” such as “proper” ways of dressing. Significant in this regard has been the so-called “pornography bill”, issued in late 2008. The bill stigmatizes and, in effect, criminalizes those populations—both non-Muslim and secular Muslim—who don’t share the Islamic perception of sexual morals. The definition of “pornography” is extremely vague: ““sexual material…in form of pictures, sketches, illustrations, photos, writings, vocalizations, sounds, moving pictures, animations, cartoons, poems, talk, body language…which can arouse sexual feelings and/or violate communal perceptions of decency”.
It is especially problematic that the bill encourages the public to lend the government a hand in fighting “pornography”. One paragraph holds that “the community is free to play a role in preventing the making, distribution of, and utilization of pornography”. Critics have condemned the law as endorsing vigilantism and, given the very broad definition of the term “pornography”, as severely limiting personal expression in the public domain.
Another charge with an increasing impact on the role of religion in public space has been that of “religious blasphemy”. Accusations of religious blasphemy are helped along by means of legal restrictions on religious freedom, and laws which discriminate against particular religious interpretations. Another paragraph of the ‘human rights’ law cited earlier reads: “In carrying out his right and freedom, every citizen has the responsibility to abide by the restriction[s] set out by laws with the sole aim to guarantee the consideration and respect for the right[s] and freedom[s] of other citizens and to fulfill a just cause in accordance with moral consideration, religious values, [public] security, and public order in a democratic society”.
This last section thus establishes limitations to religious expression in public space. It can be used to attack religious beliefs if a group perceives its human right of practicing its own religion to be disturbed by the existence of that other group. Affirmations of religious freedom also can be put under the qualification of a law on the “Prevention of Misuse or Desecration of Religion”. It holds that: “Every person is prohibited from deliberately speaking about, recommending, or lending support to interpretations of a religion that is adhered to in Indonesia, or participating in religious activities that are similar to those of a religion, interpretations and activities, which deviate from the central teachings of that religion”. The law played an important role in the current problems of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect. It has operated under a “semi-legal” status since conservative Muslims successfully lobbied the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government into issuing a decree that banned Ahmadiyah from missionary activities but not from internal activities, thus leaving its members in a legal limbo.
To be sure, the government’s motivations have for the most part been plainly political. It has been caving in to the pressure of conservative Muslims when dealing with issues that it believes to have the support of a large number of Muslims. Due to the dominant position of Islam in Indonesia and a trend toward conservatism, it has seen more at stake when it comes to issues involving Islam as compared to other religions. In Indonesia, this mind-set had and continues to have a significant impact on the role and expression of religious beliefs in the public space.
Dr. Bernhard Platzdasch is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.
This piece is part of the series “Religion & the Public Space”
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