Religious Freedoms Continue to Slip in Indonesia

Turns out religious intolerance is a problem under the Jokowi administration too.
October 25, 2018, 11:02am
Hundreds of people showed up at anti-intolerance rally in 2016
Photo by Darren Whiteside/Reuters

The 2014 presidential election was supposed to be a turning point for Indonesia. The country, one of the biggest—and youngest—democracies in the world, had elected Joko Widodo, an outsider candidate who captured hearts with promises of reform.

But four years later, Jokowi is looking a lot like his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in at least one measurement—instances of religious intolerance. A recent report by the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras) on Jokowi's first term in office found that 488 instances of religious intolerance involving nearly 900 victims had occurred under his watch.


"They (the Jokowi administration) have failed to meet their promises about human rights,” Yati Andriyani, of Kontras, told the Indonesian news magazine Tempo.

It's a continuation of a problem that plagued much of SBY's two terms in office and another sign that the country's constitutionally-enshrined pluralism is being slowly eroded by the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalist groups. Indonesia today is a far more intolerant place than it was in the recent past, even taking into account the sectarian clashes of the early aughts (those were all bloody, traumatizing incidents, but they were also isolated to specific communities and fed more by local tensions than national policy). Hardline Islamist groups like the FPI are more powerful than ever, anti-LGBTQ sentiment is basically a de-facto government policy, and both the use of the blasphemy law and the authority of Sharia police in Aceh have greatly expanded.

All of this happened during Jokowi's first term in office. But it all also has roots in the previous administration helmed by SBY. Under SBY, Indonesia implemented a so-called "religious harmony law," that, in name, was meant to increase religious harmony, but, in reality, changed the balance of faiths in this pluralist country. If, in the past, Indonesia was a nation of six equal, and officially recognized, religions, under the religious harmony law, it became a place where minority religions had to take great care not to offend the feelings of the majority. And in a country where 87 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, the majority is always the same.

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That law created a network of government-backed "Regional Interfaith Communication Forums," or FKUB, where the majority had to approve the construction of new houses of worship. These bodies are notoriously difficult to deal with if you're trying to open a place of worship for any religion but Islam, making it near impossible in some conservative regions, like West Java, to open a new church, temple, or Shia mosque legally.

This resulted in the shuttering of dozens of churches, the closure of Shia and Ahmadiyah mosques, and, later, the decision to cover a Chinese confucian statue with a giant sheet. It's also what fed the rise in religious intolerance under SBY's watch, creating a new culture of intolerance that has continued well into Jokowi's first term in office.


Under the Jokowi administration, a Shia Muslim sect was chased out of their village, their homes themselves set on fire, and their leader jailed for blasphemy. Since then, the blasphemy law has been used to jail the former governor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, on claims that he spoke ill of the Quran and a Chinese Buddhist woman for complaining that her local mosque was too loud.

“Two things could happen," Usman Hamid, the director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said of the blasphemy law. "If there is an interpretation of religious teachings that is considered deviant, you could go to jail, or if someone accuses you of spreading hostility, you could end up in jail too."

And these high-profile cases are just the tip of the more than 480 instances of religious intolerance to occur between the years of 2014 and 2018, according to the Kontras report.

The Jokowi administration has made strides in recognizing local faiths—the religions that predate the arrival of the six recognized faiths in the constitution—by allowing people to write "local faith," on their government ID cards instead of whatever religion the government told them to write. But this decision has done little to help the situation on the ground, where practitioners of these centuries-old indigenous religions are still pressured to convert, said Rukka Sombolinggi, the secretary general of the Indonesian Indigenous Society Alliance (AMAN).

“The pressure to convert to one of the recognized religions hasn’t stopped,” Rukka told VICE. “I’ve even seen myself religious authorities visit villages to try to convert followers of local minority religions."

Meanwhile, Jokowi's running mate in next year's presidential election is Ma'ruf Amin—a prominent Islamic figure with the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) who was involved in the drafting of the same SBY-era regulations that rights activists say are behind the rise in protests and forced closures of churches and temples.

But someone's past doesn't always determine how they will act in the future, and Ma'ruf, for his part, is trying to distance himself from some of his policies and statements that put him at odds with Jokowi's stance human rights in recent months. When questioned about the Kontras report, Ma'ruf told reporters that he saw a lot of mistakes on the part of the government in there.

“There’s obviously a lot we need to fix," he said. "I’m certain that Jokowi’s second term will be better."