Indonesia Takes a Step Forward For Religious Freedom

One of the greatest obstacles to achieving broader freedom of religion is lack of a fully agreed-upon definition of religion. Too narrow a definition through prejudice or lack of understanding makes it possible to discriminate against people whose beliefs are deemed not worthy of protection.

In the past few months Indonesia has taken a large step forward and possibly also a step backward in providing a more inclusive definition of religion for its 266 million people, a population that is over 85 percent Muslim but also comprises many other faiths.

To provide some background, Indonesia’s Constitution guarantees everyone the “freedom to practice the religion of his/her choice.” A law which started as a presidential decree in 1965 made it a criminal offense to insult a religion and stated that there were six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Anything not on that list was not a religion.

This has of course created difficulties for anyone whose beliefs did not make the list. For example, among those left out are millions of Muslims whose understanding and practice of Islam do not conform to the majority. Atheism is illegal. Also excluded are an estimated 12 million followers of a wide variety of ancient tribal faiths spread across Indonesia’s many islands which predate the arrival of the major religions by centuries.

All Indonesians are issued national ID cards which include a person’s religious affiliation. Only the six official religions are allowed to be listed. Anyone whose religion is not one of the six is allowed to leave the entry blank. However, leaving the field blank has been reported to cause difficulties with such things as registering a marriage, gaining government employment or obtaining government services.

Indonesia Constitutional Court (Photo by the Constitutional Court)

In November 2017, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled unanimously in favor of a petition by four of the ancient faiths that it is unconstitutional and discriminatory to deny them the right to equal treatment. It stopped short of recognition of these groups as religions but instead recommended that a seventh ID card category be created called “Believers of the Faith.” The ruling was hailed as a major step forward because it made things better for anyone belonging to a religious group not one of the six official religions. Many leaders of the six official religions, including Muslims, praised the ruling, although support was not unanimous. In particular, a council of Muslim clerics demanded that a special type of card be created for believers of traditional faiths making it clear that they were not on a par with the six “official” religions.

This month, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religions announced how it intends to comply with the Constitutional Court’s decision. It followed the lead of the Muslim council. Followers of tribal faiths will be issued “special cards” with a separate column in which they can list their faith. In other words, the Ministry is trying to comply with the Court without having to acknowledge the ancient beliefs as actual religions. What happens next remains to be seen.

It’s easy for those of us who live in the United States and other countries that guarantee full freedom of belief as a matter of law to be critical of the Indonesians. But we should remember that freedom of religion is never going to be broader than how we define religion. In particular, in the United States, despite its Constitutional guarantees, Native Americans didn’t fare much better than indigenous Indonesians when it came to respect for their religious beliefs and practices.

A Blackfoot man with medicine wheel, Montana. Early 1900s

Consider this excerpt from rules written for courts on reservations in 1892 by the Commissioner for Indian Affairs: “Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall use any arts of conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense….”

Both the rule and the attitude expressed in the preceding quote reflected the prevailing philosophy that existed for much of American history, specifically that the cultural and religious traditions that Native American peoples had followed for thousands of years should be eradicated so that they could become “civilized.” There was no thought that their “barbarous rites and customs” were religions that should be protected by the First Amendment.

Defining religion is never going to be easy since it is about infinite realities such as God and spirituality.

Prevailing views have changed over the years and Congress even adopted an American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. While making its guarantees a reality remains a work in progress, there is at least an awareness that their beliefs and practices comprise religions which should be respected.

Defining religion is never going to be easy since it is about infinite realities such as God and spirituality, and the words “define” and “definition” come from a Latin word that means “to limit.” Thus, trying to define religion is essentially trying to put a limit on the infinite. However, the rights to religious liberty of 266 million Indonesians, 327 million Americans and over 7 billion people around the world depend on religion having a practical and workable meaning.

No one said it would be easy and the definition of the term will continue to evolve—just as religious beliefs and disbeliefs will continue to develop.

I’ll end with my hope that the people of Indonesia will find an inclusive and fair way to treat all of its rich religious traditions and thereby set a new and positive example for other countries grappling with similar problems.

Jeffrey Murphy
Paralegal, researcher & amateur historian.