Put Religious Freedom Before Harmony in Indonesia, Activist Urges
Michael Victor Sianipar
Efforts by the government to insert itself more prominently into religious matters, coupled with its unclear stance on the role of religion in the state, will only exacerbate interreligious tensions in the country, leading rights activists warn.
Veteran human rights activist Todung Mulya Lubis, speaking at a discussion on religious freedom last week, said the state’s constitutional mandate to protect religious freedom lacks executive implementation, as highlighted in the case of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor, West Java, that remains sealed off in direct violation of a Supreme Court ruling to reopen it.
“The conclusion is very simple — that sometimes the state exists and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “In some cases, the state’s presence can be strongly felt, and in other cases it’s non-existent.”
He pointed out that while largely mute on the Yasmin case, the Religious Affairs Ministry has been drumming up support for its draft of the Interfaith Harmony Bill, which many activists believed as detrimental to religious freedom.
“The requirements for setting up a house of worship as stipulated in the bill will only make it more difficult for those groups with minority beliefs,” Todung said.
The greater emphasis on promoting religious harmony in the formulation of government regulations on religious affairs is ill-advised, the veteran lawyer said. He added such emphasis was not in accordance with the essence of the Constitution, in which religious freedom must trump religious harmony.
“If we refer back to the spirit of the 1945 Constitution, then inevitably we will have to take religious freedom as the main principle, and not religious harmony. The logic of the 1945 Constitution is the logic of freedom,” Todung said.
The failure to rebuild constitutional rights guaranteeing religious freedom would fuel intolerance, lead Indonesia to face more serious dangers ahead, and potentially divide the country, he warned. “Pluralism is a non-negotiable for Indonesia. There is no Indonesia without pluralism,” he said. “It is within this context that the role of the state is very instrumental.”
Todung said he believed the government had a role to play in religious affairs — as long as it did not undermine the freedom of conscience as a part of the rights accorded by the Constitution.
But a more assertive role could potentially lead to abuse of power, he said, citing cases such as Switzerland’s ban on minarets and France’s prohibition on women wearing the hijab.
In response to concerns that the state should intervene when certain groups are deemed to have blasphemed against another religion, Todung doubted the state was competent to determine such claims.
“There are regulations on blasphemy, but who is qualified to decide? The state cannot claim it has the authority to declare that a certain group has blasphemed a religion,” he argued.
This excessive religious sensitivity can be attributed to the decline of Indonesia’s culture of tolerance, said Rumadi, senior researcher at the Wahid Institute.
He argued that recent developments suggested there was a rise in intolerance across Indonesia at the expense of communal values and a long history of harmonious coexistence.
“One of our conclusions is that society has become prone to intolerance. What used to be considered as acceptable has become unacceptable,” he said, citing the recent persecution of Shia Muslims in the country.
In December 2011 a mob attacked and burned down homes belonging to Shia families in Sampang, East Java. Earlier this month, Shia cleric Tajul Muluk went on trial for blasphemy. The persecution of the world’s second-largest denomination of Islam, with millions of adherents in Indonesia, has little precedence in Indonesia’s history, Rumadi pointed out.
“If in the past the fight for pluralism was considered heroic, today it has become a minor issue that carries immense risk. Politicians will only defend issues concerning religious freedom when it is politically expedient, but not when it will devaluate their political standing,” the researcher said.
“Who would dare to defend the Ahmadiyah? Who would dare to defend GKI Yasmin, even when the legal case is clear?”
He also argued that state regulations on religious activities were skewed to benefit the majority Sunni Muslims at the expense of minority groups.
“Muslims in Indonesia have received many services. We have laws on zakat [alms] and Shariah banking. The state has been very indulgent in providing religious services, although some still consider it to be insufficient,” Rumadi said.
“While on the one hand there is this lavish provision of services by the government, on the other hand there are other groups that do not receive any such provisions.”