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Want to Report Your Neighbor for Following a 'Deviant' Faith? In Indonesia, There's an App for That

The prosecutor's office brings you an app one rights expert warned could cause "social disintegration."
27 November 2018, 11:00am
The Badui in West Java, a local religion that shuns technology.
A photo of members of the outer Badui, a local faith in West Java that shuns technology. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

Twenty-eighteen has been a year of tech controversies in Indonesia. This is a year when the county saw not one, but two, polygamy apps (oh, and a virgin auction site). A year when the central government's ongoing repression of the LGBTQ community resulted in the banning of numerous queer dating apps. And now, not to be outdone, the government itself decided to release what might be the most-controversial app of the year—an app for Indonesians to snitch on neighbors who might follow "deviant," or "misguided" religions.

Smart Pakem is an app released by the Jakarta prosecutor's office last week that lists, among other things, religious beliefs and organizations that are already banned by the central government, fatwas issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), and details about the beliefs or practices that the office deemed troublesome and presumably worth investigating. The app even goes further, including information about the so-called "leaders" of indigenous faiths and their addresses as well.

Watch: Heaven and Hell: Indonesia’s Battle Over Polygamy

So why is the prosecutor's office making an app that doxxes local religious figures and snitches on people who want to practice their faith in a different way? Rights groups and critics were wondering the same thing.

“What is so wrong about people seeking spirituality in their own way?" Halili Hasan, a researcher at the Setara Institute, told the Jakarta Post. "Pakem teams result in majoritarianism, where the many decide on what is good for the few."

"This is the first time we've ever had an app like this that threatens human rights and democracy in Indonesia," Choirul Anam, a commissioner with the National Human Rights Committee, told the local press. "[This app] is counterproductive to all the government's efforts. The High Prosecutor must take it down so it doesn't interfere with the government's efforts to build our democracy."

So what's going on here? The prosecutor's office and the Attorney General's Office both say the app is within their legal rights, and in-line with their goals as legal organizations.

“Now we have a way to digitally monitor [people and their faiths]," Yulianto, an intelligence assistant at the prosecutor's office, told "This app was also developed for the sake of transparency and to educate the people. We’ve already received some reports through the app."

Now let's put aside the weird idea that an app that turns everyone into a spy somehow also makes the legal system more transparent and point out that no one but a member of a state institution is going to be happy about having a new way to "digitally monitor" anyone in Indonesia.

Mukri, the AGO's spokesperson tried to defend the app as well, but only threw more fuel on the fire by saying, "You have to understand the philosophy behind the creation of this app. It is meant to educate the public and it is within the AGO’s authority. We want to create an inventory to make it easier for the public to check whether a group is banned or not. Also, if someone reports a group through the app, it doesn’t mean that it will be destroyed immediately. It just helps the AGO to investigate further.”

Oh, cool. So none of these beliefs are going to be destroyed immediately, at least not without an investigation first. What a relief.

Now if you're outside Indonesia, you might be a bit confused here as to why the authorities feel a need to monitor citizen's beliefs like this, so let me give you a quick primer on how the state sees religion. Indonesia, legally, only recognizes six faiths, three of which are Abrahamic (Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam) and the rest have roots in neighboring countries (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism). Everything else, including Judaism, isn't recognized by the state, so it's not seen as a legal religion. Same goes with no religion at all.

In Indonesia, your religion is a big part of your life. It's on your government ID card. It's something to consider when you want to get married, because the state requires the signature of a religious official to approve a marriage and plenty won't marry an inter-faith couple.

Now, it wasn't always this way. Way back before the arrival of any of the Big Six, Indonesians had their own local, indigenous faiths. There were literally hundreds of them and a lot were animist or mystical in nature, and for much of the country's existence, the state refused to accept that any of these faiths even existed. It didn't let people write their own indigenous religion on ID cards until last year, and even then, the only option was the vague "Believers of the Faith."

And of the Big Six, only certain strains of the religions are seen acceptable. Shia Muslims are the subject of routine discrimination and sporadic violence. Ahmadiyah Muslims have had their mosques forcibly shuttered, their homes burned, and some of them were even killed by angry mobs. The leader of the Gerakan Fajar Nusantara (Gafatar), a local Islamic sect, was jailed for blasphemy. His followers were driven out of their village, their homes set ablaze. The list goes on. There were nearly 500 instances of religious intolerance under President Joko Widodo's first term in office alone, and more than 1,400 under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Since Indonesia's independence, at least 60 indigenous faiths have gone extinct, according to data compiled by Tedi Kholiluddin, director of the Institute of Social Studies and Religion of Central Java, according to an interview in Tempo Magazine.

And all of this was before the prosecutor's office decided to make an app that encouraged people to spy on how their neighbors pray and inform the government if they don't like what they see. It's only going to make things worse, potentially leading to a "dangerous consequence by causing social disintegration," Amiruddin Al-Rahab, a commissioner with the National Commission on Human Rights, told Reuters.

"When neighbors are reporting each other, that would be problematic," Amiruddin said.