Indonesian Minorities Must Have the Right to Freely Practice Their Religion

By Anett Keller

Franz Magnis-Suseno is a German-born Jesuit priest and professor of philosophy in Jakarta. The naturalised Indonesian citizen talks about religious tolerance and the definition of blasphemy in Indonesia.

A series of developments in Indonesia over the past few months has left supporters of pluralism and freedom of religion deeply concerned. The controversial anti-pornography law was upheld by the Indonesian Constitutional Court, although the court’s judges turned down a review of the 1965 law on blasphemy. Once again, Christian communities have had building permits for their churches rejected. Is Indonesia becoming increasingly intolerant?
I see two tendencies. On the positive side, there are a growing number of very pluralistic-thinking, prominent members of the Muslim majority. These include, for instance, the young intellectuals in Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama, two large Muslim organisations. But there are also numerous other groups promoting pluralism. There are a great variety of study and exchange programmes encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
In general, no one questions the basic principle of Pancasila, which states that the country belongs to all its citizens equally.
What has me concerned is that intolerance at the grassroots level appears to be on the rise. Certainly, this can be attributed to a growing influence of groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), but there are also political movements that are increasingly playing the “Islamic card.”

What does this mean for the future of Indonesia?
It all depends on how stable democracy becomes. I’m of the opinion that things in the country are much better than they appear from the outside.
Economic growth has been considerable, poverty is decreasing and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was re-elected last year, enjoys great popularity. Things will depend on how Indonesians see their country over the long term. When the people believe that Indonesia remains mired in corruption and poverty, hardline groups will of course have an easier time of it.

On 19 April, the Constitutional Court rejected a revision of the controversial law on blasphemy, which only recognises six main religions – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – and which has been used in the past to persecute religious minorities. You were called in as an expert to a hearing by the Constitutional Court on the revision to the law. Why?
I’ve been especially critical of the first paragraph of the law, in which blasphemy is described as “deviant teachings.” This definition is wrong. Blasphemy means to disparage a religion, which can be made a punishable offence, but it doesn’t mean to deviate from a majority viewpoint.
Secondly, the state does not have the right to determine which teachings are the “proper teachings” and which deviate from these. The state cannot say that Catholics are right and Jehovah Witnesses are wrong, merely because the former group has more adherents. Freedom of religion must also apply to minorities.

Why do you think the Constitutional Court rejected the revision?

The supporters of the law, which include the government and representatives of the large Muslim mass organisations, have argued that social peace cannot be guaranteed without such legislation. What they have actually done is blackmail us – members of pluralistic non-governmental organisations and representatives of the national Human Rights Commission – with an indirect threat of violence. Yet the representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian communities have also voiced support for keeping the law, because they fear that without it, there would be no legal framework allowing them to practice their religions. Perhaps the petitioners should have spent more time in trying to allay these concerns.

Then hardline groups have won?
The difficulty here does not lie with the relatively small number of such groups, but rather that a wide spectrum of the population is easily stirred up, because the social problems still remain so great. Many Indonesians, for instance, support the introduction of decrees based upon Islamic law in the hope that this will lead to a decrease in crime.
In addition, many Muslims have the impression that Islam is under attack worldwide, not least because of the public mood in the West. This serves to mobilise mistrust, which hardliners cleverly use to their advantage. And one shouldn’t forget how paternalistic Indonesian society remains.
Besides all this, not enough is invested in education, which is the key to more tolerance and equal rights.

What more should be done in the area of education?
Instead of simply memorising facts, much more emphasis should be placed on building character and on bringing up open, critically thinking, creative and pluralistic-minded citizens. Most of all, teachers and parents have to convey to children a sense of courage to ask questions.

Anett Keller is a freelance writer based in Jakarta.

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