December 30, 2009
Abuse of Religious Freedom Hurts Indonesia And Renders God Defenseless
Religious freedom has been abused once more in Indonesia with the recent attack on Saint Albertus church in Bekasi. This sort of abuse against minority groups has been going on for years, yet the government and religious leaders have made little effort to address it.
In today’s civilized world, it is high time that the government and religious figures take concrete and substantial steps to stop the abuse of religious freedom in Indonesia. This not only requires legal amendments, but also a significant restructuring of the institutions responsible for overseeing religious matters and a transformation in the messages and values religious leaders foster in their communities.
To its credit, the nation has a Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion, expression and opinion, has ratified international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has passed several laws to this effect (the 1999 Law on Human Rights, for instance). However, in an unacceptable oversight, legislation has not been amended to accord with constitutional changes or newly ratified conventions. There are several regulations that outright contradict the Constitution, most especially article 156a of the Criminal Code.
This article makes spreading hatred, heresy and blasphemy punishable by up to five years in prison. Originally intended to protect religion and not religious adherents, it has been used to criminalize citizens based on their religious beliefs. Lack of clarity over what is meant by religious defamation also has allowed the government and pressure groups to interpret it as they wish, giving them the power to criminalize others, even though by doing so they are violating the 1945 Constitution, which accords “all persons the right to worship according to their own religion and belief.” The bias in application of this article is apparent as it is largely used to criminalize so-called heresy and defamation of Islam by supposedly “deviant” sects, like Ahmadiyya, mostly because of pressure from Islamic hard-line groups.
Interestingly, the government often has turned a blind eye when radical Islamic groups violate this very article. Most of the “deviant” sects and individuals charged under this law practiced their beliefs peacefully, yet it has been conservative groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI) that have incited hostilities against these very groups. If the government was to enforce this law strictly and without bias, those conservatives and radicals proven guilty of spreading hatred against humanity through demonstrations, raids, religious gatherings or jihadi Web sites would have been put behind bars long ago.
In addition to harmonizing these outdated laws, the government needs to replace problematic statutes like the 1965 Law on Prevention of Abuse and Defamation of Religions, the 2006 Revised Joint Ministerial Decree on the Construction of Houses of Worship and the 1978 Guidelines for the Propagation of Religion with an all encompassing law guaranteeing religious freedom. Such a law could be written along the lines of the Australian Constitution, which prohibits the government from making any laws to establish a religion, impose religious observance or prohibit the free exercise of religion. The law should give all individuals the freedom to express a diversity of views, as long as they do not incite religious hatred or violate the rights of others.
Such a change would require revision of the 2006 civil registration bill that requires Indonesian citizens to identify their religion on their national identity cards (KTP). The category for religion could either be removed entirely, or people from minority groups could finally be allowed to acknowledge their real beliefs. This would decrease religious discrimination against those whose beliefs lay outside of the country’s six recognized religions. On this note, the government could further promote religious freedom by no longer officially acknowledging only six religions, but by embracing the multitude of religions and beliefs practiced in Indonesia.
The government also must address the violation of religious freedom and human rights made possible by the existence of religious institutions such as the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Bakor Pakem) and the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI). Tasked with monitoring and resolving instances of deviant interpretation of religious doctrine, Bakor Pakem’s authority has increased state intervention in religious issues in a way that clearly violates the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The role of the MUI, founded in 1975, is problematic. In recent years it has issued a number of religious decrees regarding deviance from mainstream Islam, including the 2007 fatwa outlining 10 guidelines for detecting deviant teachings and the 2008 recommendation to ban the minority Ahmadiyya sect. Though possessing no legal basis whatsoever, these, and other decrees like them, have justified significant official and social discrimination against minority religious groups in Indonesia and legitimized social violence.
Yet the MUI has no legal or moral right to judge peoples’ beliefs and influence public opinion, government policy making, bodies like Bakor Pakem and even the judicial process. Indeed the council’s own moral credibility is questionable. One need not be familiar with the results of the survey conducted by Transparency International Indonesia at the end of 2008 to know that the MUI is one of the most corrupt institutions in Indonesia.
So how is the MUI able to maintain such a powerful position? It seems there is a symbiotic relationship between it and the government, much like that between a king and religious authorities in the past. The MUI is elevated to a position of power and authority, and in return tows the party line, giving religious legitimacy to government policies and acting as what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a “cultural broker.” During Suharto’s regime the role would have been described as “vote-getters.”
In reality, however, the MUI might not be very influential at all among the people. Fatwas banning smoking or telling people not to watch the movie “2012” are widely ignored and even ridiculed. Even highly pious groups no longer blindly obey the instructions of ulema and kiai (Islamic religious leaders) and thus these figures no longer function as the vote-getters they once were. In general, our citizens show a level of maturity that the MUI would like to deny them with its constant regulation of anything “improper.” Indonesians must be allowed the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong without constantly being spoon-fed.
Finally, religious leaders need to consider the content of their theological teachings. Though all would swear that God is all powerful, some teachers inadvertently suggest that God needs his people to defend him whenever his name is defamed, promising that God will reward his defenders in heaven. This sort of teaching only provokes religious adherents to attack those they see as defaming or threatening their God. While this teaching might seem to please God, it actually diminishes his standing, from all powerful to a deity who needs to be defended by humans.
Religious figures instead should preach that God is powerful enough to defend himself and his religion. This act alone would increase maturity and create a more tolerant and pluralistic environment for all. This could help shift peoples’ behavior from aggressiveness to gentleness and respect. Then, when people hear and see someone speak badly of their God or religion, or espouse a different belief or interpretation of a faith, they would no longer feel the need to respond with violence. They might then peacefully surrender the matter to God and his judgment.
Muh Taufiqurrohman holds a masters degree in international relations from UNPAR. Rebecca Lunnon is a graduate student at Monash University.