Oxford House

Why Indonesian Islam Matters

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Indonesian Muslims celebrate Eid-al-Fitr in Jakarta on April 22, 2023. (Aditya Irawan via Getty Images)

My theme is Indonesia, specifically the nature and importance of its Islamic identity. Since the fall in 1998 of authoritarian President Soeharto (1921-2008; Pres. 1968-1998), Indonesia has been on the ascendant. With 88% of its 276m citizens Muslim, 1 it is the largest Muslim-majority country and the third largest democracy in the world. For the past two decades, it has enjoyed free and (mostly) fair elections. 2022 was a good year for Indonesia as President of G20 and future Chair of ASEAN (from May 2023).

Indonesia is strategically located. Its 3,000-mile chain of 14,000 islands (the number varies according to tides) stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Some islands are west of India, others eight hundred miles east of the Philippines. Like many SE Asian countries, Indonesia is suspicious of China’s hegemonic aspirations.2 Indonesia is the strongest and largest economy in the region (and in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation). Analysts predict that Indonesia will soon join the world’s ten largest economies, its natural resources securing its financial future, and lucrative investment.3 A recent Economist article reflected, ‘Why Indonesia matters’.4 Despite its strength and potential, Indonesia remains, as regional expert Bernard Adeney-Risakotta (b. 1948) says, ‘the most important country in the world that nobody knows anything about’.

Cross currents

One reason Indonesia is little known is the limited role it has played in world affairs since World War II. Why is this? A key reason is its struggle to achieve, and preserve (even under military pressure), a coherent sense of identity. With 14,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups, 700 languages and strong religious cross currents, the nation’s political energy has been directed inward. Indonesia’s domestic issues are not unique, and most Indonesians strongly identify with the country, but the deep contrasts and contradictions in its cultures and customs can make it a fissiparous country.

Religion is in the forefront of Indonesia’s struggles. Religious freedom is a hot topic. Here, again, Indonesia is not unique. But, as elsewhere, positive government claims are countered by Human Rights groups. Disputes over the country’s Human Rights record and the genuineness of its support for religious freedom remain fierce. This creates a blurred picture. Reports of repression and violence are (usually) countered by (political) celebrations of cultural coexistence and religious harmony.

In his address to the 72nd UN General Assembly on 21 September 2017, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla (b.1942; VP 2014-2019) described religious toleration in Indonesia as ‘better than in other countries’, and a ‘model’ for others to copy. The head of Human Rights Watch Indonesia dubbed Kalla’s words ‘fantasy’ and indicative of ‘the government’s willful disregard of … the corrosive influence of discriminatory laws’ on religious minorities, and of ‘official actions to reinforce those laws’. To defenders of Human Rights, the speech was a cynical ‘exercise in self-deception’ and ‘a gross insult to religious minorities’.5

So, what’s the truth? Depending on the evidence adduced, a case can be made for Indonesia’s religious harmony and systematic discrimination against minorities. As we will see, the latter are at the sharp end of antagonistic extremism.

Religion and the State

The Republic of Indonesia’s four-year battle for independence (from the Dutch East Indies) – from its declaration on 17 August 1945 to its international endorsement on 27 December 1949 – was accompanied by a new ideology, ‘Pancasila’ (Lit. Five Principles’). The five key tenets of ‘Pancasila’ are still enshrined in the Preamble to Indonesia’s Constitution.6 The first Principle asserts ‘Belief in one God (Lord) (Ind. Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa)’. Earlier drafts expressed this principle as, ‘One Lordship with the obligation to carry out the Islamic syari’a (sharia; Lit. law) for its adherents.’ Both Christians and (some) Muslims objected, since the wording effectively excluded them (and their lands) from the new country. The Preparatory Committee for Independence changed the wording to its present form. The phrase ‘with the obligation to carry out the Islamic syari’a for its adherents’ remains contentious. These ‘7 words’ (in Indonesian) attract Islamist support for their reinstatement in the Constitution.

References to religion in the Indonesian Constitution are revealing. The Preamble begins: ‘By the grace of God Almighty and motivated by the noble desire to live a free national life, the people of Indonesia hereby declare their independence.’ Article 29 combines this broad commitment to monotheism with a generic commitment to religious freedom. It declares: ‘1. The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God. 2. The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his or her own religion or belief.’ In Article 9, we also find the following, ‘Prior to taking office, the President and Vice President shall swear an oath in accordance with their respective religions or shall make a solemn promise….’ The framers of the Constitution clearly envisaged the possibility of a non-Muslim President. Finally, the national motto in Article 36A is the comprehensive, ‘Unity in Diversity’ (Ind. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika), echoing America’s famous E pluribus unum (Lit. ‘Out of many one’). The aim of the Constitution with respect to religion is to be sufficiently monotheistic to satisfy Muslim and some Christian sensibilities and vague enough to avoid a restrictive religious ideology – in short, to enshrine in law an inclusive civil religion. Civil society organizations are thus legally bound to follow ‘Pancasila’s’ political ideology and prohibited from disseminating religious hatred. The spirit and letter of ‘Pancasila’ are closely guarded. Civil society bodies that depart from it potentially risk loss of legal status, dissolution, and the arrest of members.

Drilling down into the Constitution, six religions are officially recognized, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, and ‘Christianity’ (i.e. Protestantism).7 Minority religions may register but only as a social group rather than a specifically religious one, even though they can practice their religion; hence, such groups are paradoxically neither banned nor recognized. Traditional religious groups may register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as cultural belief systems (Ind. aliran kepercayaan) but again not as religious bodies.

Technically, atheism contradicts ‘Pancasila’, but the government does not go after atheists. The 500+ members of an online ‘Indonesian Atheists’ group are neither prosecuted nor persecuted. Yes, it would be unwise to proclaim publicly ‘There is no God’, but an atheist per se has little to fear, certainly less than a convert from one official religion to another. A 1979 ruling by the Ministries of Religion and of Home Affairs made it illegal to proselytize. But conversion itself is legal and does, of course, occur and, in the inclusive spirit of ‘Pancasila’, the authorities permit them. The official position being most often, ‘If a person wants to change religion, it is their business not that of the government.’

Indonesian Islam

The primary focus of this Briefing is Islam in Indonesia. It deserves close attention, not only because of the size of the Muslim community but also because of its distinct character.

The first thing to note is that there are many types of Indonesian Muslim, with more than half affiliated to one of two organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. These form the core of Indonesia’s civil society. Founded in 1912, Muhammadiyah is a reformist body upholding a pure form Islam free of cultural accretions and Salafist influence. The NU was formed in 1926. Its ethos is traditional. It was catalyzed by Saudi desecration of ‘holy sites’ in Mecca and Medina and rumors the Prophet’s tomb at risk. The founders were self-confessed defenders of true, tolerant, Islam.8 In 1922, one of their number, Muhammad Faqih Maskumambang (1857-1937), published his widely read (and still available) book Menolak Wahhabi (Lit. Wahhabism Rejected). At the time, few in the West knew of the existence (or significance) of this now powerful Saudi sect. Indonesian Muslims had faced this and similar threats for over a century.9

Returning to an earlier point. As civil society organizations, NU and Muhammadiyah favor democracy and peaceful religious co-existence. Their Islam does not need a theocratic state. NU’s heartland is the local community, its culture and common life. It publishes magazines and promotes charitable projects, including education for millions of students in its (22) universities and (10,000+) schools. The strong, reformist agenda of Muhammadiyah is also committed to education and personal development, but its focus is on modernizing practices and professional development, alongside its (29) universities.

A key point to register about NU and Muhammadiyah (and most Indonesian Islamic bodies) is their practice of a moderate ‘Islam of the Archipelago’ (Ind. Islam Nusantara). According to Indonesian historian, public intellectual and university administrator Azyumardi Azra (1955-2022), this is not, as some would argue, simply a localized Hindu-Buddhist amalgam, but a form of Sunni orthodoxy built on Ash‘arite theology, Ghazalian Sufism, and the Shafi‘i Madhab.10 As such, it seeks to be ‘moderasi’ (Lit. balance, harmony) and walk a ‘middle way’ (Ind. wasatiyyah Islam) between divine revelation and human reason. Furthermore, as ‘Islam Nusantara’ (‘Islam of the Archipelago’) suggests, Indonesia per se shapes this distinctive Islamic variant. It reflects the country’s pluriform physical, social, and spiritual context. The country’s islands, coastline, ports, trade, travel, history, and infinite socio-ecological variety, create a religion at variance with forms of Islam forged in the monochrome aridity and social isolation of the desert. An Islamic majority that has for centuries cohabited with island peoples and indigenous beliefs knows the riches of diversity and risk of extremism. Hence, the Indonesian Islamic scholar and former Executive Chairman of NU, Said Aqil Siradj (b. 1953), commends an Islam propagated by ‘respecting local cultures, not eradicating them’. But the impact of context on Indonesian Islam must not be overstated. Though some like Siradji welcome diversity and tradition, other Muslim scholars stress that their theology, faith, and law is not simply an accident of history and geography.11 And this, note, when some Indonesian theology contains fascinating parallels with classical Christian treatment of ‘common grace’ and ‘natural law’.

We must turn now to some less attractive issues in contemporary Indonesian life.

a. Religious repression

Despite prominent calls for moderation and inclusion, Indonesian culture has in recent times become increasingly intolerant and ideological. Constitutional democracy has not been matched by intellectual and social flexibility. While more tolerant Islam is still hegemonic, the potent viruses of radicalism and extremism are now endemic. The forms and rationale for this are important to register. Two features deserve note.

i. Traditional religions are still discriminated against. There are approximately 400 traditional religions (Ind. aliran kepercayaan) in Indonesia. Historically, they have not been deemed worthy of specific legal protection. Hence, they have suffered official and unofficial discrimination. As noted above, ID cards record a person’s religion. People who did not belong to one of the six major religions faced the choice of leaving their religion un-named or lying about it. Lack of identity documents, including birth certificates, have made it difficult for children to enroll in schools, or adults to marry or get mortgages. In November 2017, the Constitutional Court declared aliran kepercayaan to be religions and that the ID card should include a category of ‘other.’ The government accepted the Court’s ruling and is implementing the decision.12

ii. Animosity to ‘deviant’ Islamic groups is increasing. In 1965, President Sukarno issued a Decree authorizing criminal punishments for promoting ‘deviant’ interpretations of one of the religions that is followed in Indonesia. Such ‘deviant’ groups are under increasing social, religious, and political pressure. This is certainly true of Islamic minorities. Though no formal legal restrictions apply to Indonesia’s 1-2m. Shia, Sunni extremists target them (as elsewhere in the world). Anti-Shia rhetoric is commonplace. Shia centers of worship have been attacked by the now proscribed Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). To avoid discrimination and physical violence some Shias are Sunni in public. But those who suffer most from intra-Islamic tension – and the charge of heresy – are the Ahmadis, or Ahmadiyya. Few in number (ca. 200,000-400,000), the Indonesian government has forbidden them from propagating their views. Some Provinces ban their activities. In addition to Ahmadis reporting problems obtaining ID cards and marriage licenses, 100 of their mosques have been shut, many more damaged or destroyed with impunity.13 The Fajar Nusantara Movement (otherwise known as Gafatar) suffered a worse fate. Teaching a fusion of Islamic, Christian, and Judaic principles, Gafatar was disbanded by the government in 2015 as a ‘deviant’ Islamic group. In January 2016, more than 7000 Gafatari were evicted from their farms in Kalimantan. Unrestrained mobs burned their homes. The government dispatched many to re-education centers.14

b. Invoking Indonesia’s Blasphemy laws

And then there is ‘blasphemy’ which has been and remains a live issue in Indonesia. A person can be indicted for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements.15 Article 156 and 156(a) of the criminal code and the 1965 Presidential Decree (No. 1/PNPS/1965, ‘Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions’) address and define blasphemy. Article 156(a) is clear: those ‘who purposely express their views or commit an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuses or defames a religion recognized in Indonesia’ face a five-year (max.) prison sentence.

Evidence suggests a significant increase in prosecutions for blasphemy over the last 20 years. Most notably, in 2016 the then Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (b. 1966), popularly known as Ahok, became the subject of a fatwa by the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council. The case deserves close attention as an example of the political use and abuse of the charge of blasphemy, and further evidence of the conscientizing of Indonesia’s Islamic majority. The fact that Ahok is ethnic Chinese (in a society becoming increasingly anti-China) and Christian (in a country where 88% of the citizens are Muslim) did not help his cause. However, his energy and effectiveness as Governor of the Indonesian capital secured him a 70% approval rating and strong support for his reelection in 2017. To many, this would have been a springboard for the Vice Presidency, running beside his friend President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi (b. 1961; Pres. 2014-present). While campaigning for re-election, Ahok claimed in an aside that the Qur’anic verse al-Maidah 51 (warning Muslims against alliances with Jews or Christians), was being misused by some clerics to undermine his candidacy. A skillfully and misleadingly edited video of his remarks went viral. The fatwa swiftly followed. The radical FPI and others demonstrated demanding his imprisonment. When the case came to trial, the prosecution recommended probation and a one-year suspended jail term: the judges ignored this and sentenced Ahok to two years in prison. The case roiled the country and divided families.

The Ahok case helpfully highlights cross currents in Indonesian religion and society. Here Muslim leaders and a baying mob pressurize a judge. A charge of blasphemy is turned to an enemy’s advantage. Ahok, however, went on campaigning during his trial and, in the end, lost by a relatively narrow margin (58% to 42%). Incarcerated in a Police flat at the Mobile Brigade Corps’ HQ, he enjoyed tea with the base commander and comparative freedom. When I visited him, he seemed fit and well. When asked what he wanted to do when released, he replied, ‘Become President of Indonesia’. Opposition does not kill ambition! On the day Ahok was released, he visited one of the most powerful figures in Indonesian politics, Megawati Soekarnoputri (b. 1947), leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest party in the country. Days later, he joined PDI-P. When President Jokowi was re-elected in 2019, Ahok was made Chairman of the state-controlled oil company Pertamina, the largest corporation in the country.

The dynamics of Ahok’s story are worth noting. One minute he is a prominent politician, the next a convicted blasphemer, the next in charge of the country’s largest company, now he is mentioned as a potential Governor of the new (yet-to-be-built) capital.16 To many inside and outside Indonesia, Ahok’s experience is a sad indictment of Indonesian democracy; to others, he is lucky still to be alive. Indonesia isn’t a Pakistan or other Islamic State: a Governor can be imprisoned, but not killed, for blasphemy, and then, as a convicted blasphemer, appointed to high office. Glimmers of liberality and the inclusive vision of ‘Pancasila’ are still alive.

c. Pressure on Religious freedom

I end with a theme close to my heart, religious freedom. Let’s be clear: the vast majority of Indonesian Muslims reject intolerance and resist the attempts to ‘Arabize’ and ‘Islamize’ that flow in from repressive Gulf States. Indonesia and Indonesian Islam are not of that ilk – and Indonesia is a more friendly, open, and some would say successful, country as a result. Yes, corruption is endemic and the government is becoming more authoritarian,17 but Indonesia is still a success story, not least because of its indigenous Islamic identity. And, crucially, as Pew Forum confirmed recently, what some see as a peripheral country with an idiosyncratic, outdated, folksy form of Islam, has a breadth and depth of personal piety rarely found in the Middle East. Thoughtful religious leaders in Indonesia have turned this to good effect, founding international educational programs on reconciliation and religious harmony.18

All this, notwithstanding, Indonesia remains a political and religious enigma. As we have seen, cross currents exist in the theory and practice of religion and religious freedom. Conflict is near the surface.19 In accord with international law, Indonesia is required to defend religious freedom even if the exercise of that freedom offends others. But Indonesian culture is deep rooted, its commitment to religious tolerance clear, even if religious freedom per se (Ind. kebebasan beragama) remains suspect in the eyes of some and is surrendered by others for the sake of social harmony. Many Indonesians, in my experience, recognize that extremism threatens the fine balance of their cultural and constitutional heritage. Western notions of an individual’s absolute right to believe or not believe are alien to Indonesian culture and consciousness. Critics and clerics are, in the eyes of most people, equally likely to make trouble. The country’s remarkable religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, and historic capacity to manage this equitably, are, to my mind, grounds to give Indonesian Islam far more attention. Other countries can learn much from Indonesia’s struggles and success.

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