State - Religion Relations in Indonesia: A Comparative Perspective

Friday, May 14th, 2010, 04:22 WIB

Professor Anthony Reid has presented a rich and compelling cultural-historical analysis of the origins of religious tolerance and pluralism in Indonesia. He attributes Indonesian pluralism to a combination of cultural and economic factors. Culturally there is a tendency toward a variety of syncretism in which new religions absorb and transform elements of previously existent and even dominant traditions. This syncretic tendency is fostered by economic concerns. Pre-modern Indonesian, and other Southeast Asian, states were heavily reliant on the maritime trading system linking China with India and the Middle East. Among the consequences of this was the virtual necessity of tolerating the presence of minority religious communities, particularly in trading ports such as Jakarta and Surabaya. While predominantly Muslim, Indonesia has significant and regionally concentrated Christian and Hindu minorities. Consequently preserving the unity and territorial integrity of the country depends on the maintenance of religious and ethnic harmony.

The Javanese adaptation and transformation of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in the wayang (shadow place) traditions and legends concerning the Javanese wali (saint) Sunan Kudus provide important example of the ways in which Javanese retained and reworked elements of their rich Indic heritage when they adopted Islam. The Muslim appropriation of the wayang tradition was at the same time elegant and remarkably simple. Hindu “gods” were redefined as heroic humans and fitted into dynastic genealogies in which they are described as being among the descendants of the Islamic Prophet Adam. Sunan Kudus, the founder of the city that bears his name, is said to have adopted a gentle approach to the propagation of Islam and to have prohibited the slaughter of cattle to avoid offending Hindu Javanese. The religious diversity of trading centers in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial times speaks for the economic importance of religious tolerance.

In many respects Reid’s discussion of the cultural foundations of and economic motivations for tolerance and pluralism closely resembles that of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen’s discussion of the similarly tolerant attitudes characteristics of South Asian civilizations for many centuries. Both, however, note that there are important exceptions and that even within the pluralistic cultures there are social movements and forces advocating the establishment of religious uniformity and rigid orthodoxies.

His observation that in the west tolerance and pluralism were accepted only when it became clear that religious uniformity could not be maintained by force of arms is equally important. In Europe the initial move towards tolerance, let alone pluralism, was the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 which brought the Wars of Religion that had raged for more than a century to a close. While the Westphalian peace brought interstate struggles to establish religious hegemony across national boundaries to a close it did nothing to establish tolerance and pluralism within the boundaries of European states. States retained the authority to establish one religion and to restrict or proscribe others. Similarly, the rise of religious pluralism within states derives at least from political necessity as from cultural or religious commitment to the idea of pluralism.

The United States is an important example. While the US now describes itself as being committed to the ideas of pluralism and the separation of Church and State, this was not always the case. At the time of the framing of the US constitution with its “wall of separation,” many of the individual states had established religions – all of which were variant forms of Christianity. Indeed, until the passage of the fourteenth amendment in 1866, states retained the right to establish religions within there respective boundaries. The establishment of full equality at law on the basis of religion. It was, therefore not until it became politically necessary to establish other forms of liberty in the wake of the American Civil War that religious pluralism in something resembling its contemporary form became politically possible.

This paper presents a comparative account of relationships between the state and religions in contemporary Indonesia. Indonesia is a particularly interesting case for the reasons Reid mentions and because the concept of being neither a religious nor a secular state is a self-conscious element of political culture and national identity. Here it is argued that while the Indonesian government does not officially establish a particular religion it mandates that its citizens adhere to one of the officially recognized religions and more over that many of states, that is seeks to regulate and financially supports tolerant variants of religions.

State-Religion relationships vary enormously. They can be placed on a continuum. On one end of this continuum are totalitarian states including Saudi Arabia which establishes a single variant of one religion and proscribes others and communist states that ban, or at least very severely restrict religion. Grouping states that demand religious orthodoxy with those seeking to eliminate religion may seem counter-intuitive. However, the two categories of states are similar in that they seek to subordinate religion to state control. On the other end one finds the United States, France and other secular industrial democracies where there is something approaching a religious “free market,” In many instance a single category does not uniquely capture the complex forms of religion-state relationships found in many countries. All of these categories are what Max Weber termed “ideal types.” Ideal types are abstractions of significant features of historical phenomena that aid in the explanation of less clearly defined, and variable social phenomena.

The categories employed here are ideal types and not generalizations from social-political realities. Even the most repressive states are able to enforce total compliance with the demands of religious or secular orthodoxy and even the most liberal states outlaw or discourage some modes of religious practice, if not belief. Saudi Arabia attempts to enforce Hanbalite orthodoxy on its own subjects but allows other Muslim to observe the rites of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in accordance with their own legal traditions and has proved unable eliminate a substantial Shi’ah majority. Even the ravages of the Cultural Revolution did not eliminate at least the vestiges of religion in China which has flourished in the post-Mao era. Even the most liberal states out law religious practices deemed to be morally abhorrent such as sutee (the burning of widows) in India and polygamy in the United States. There are also exceptions to the general rule that democratic states are more inclined towards tolerance and pluralism than others. In Germany, for example, Scientology is outlawed, while in France Muslim schoolgirls are forbidden to wear hijab (headscarves) and there has been an effort to legally exclude religion from most arenas of public life.

There are many diverse cases located between the two ends of the continuum and in many instances powerful social forces attempting to move states and societies towards one or both of them. A survey of data included in the United States Department of State 2006 Report on International Religious Freedom reveals seven intermediate categories.

1. States Approaching a Religious Free Market

These are states in which there is no “official” religion and minimal restrictions on religious organization and behavior. One group of such countries includes United States, Canada and Australia are examples. There may, however, be deconfessionalized religious symbols and concepts included in what Robert Bellah terms the “civil religions” of these countries. An example is the phrase “In God We Trust” that appears on United States coins and currency. Debates about abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research are examples of the ways in which religious convictions can shape the course of nominally secular political discourse. Promotion of religious freedom is also among the pillars of American foreign policy. The US Department of State describes this policy as follows:

“The Office of International Religious Freedom has the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. Headed by Ambassador-at-Large John Hanford for International Religious Freedom, its Office Director and staff monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.

Given the U.S. commitment to religious freedom, and to the international covenants that guarantee it as the inalienable right of every human being, the United States seeks to:

  • Promote freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries;
  • Assist newly formed democracies in implementing freedom of religion and conscience;
  • Assist religious and human rights NGOs in promoting religious freedom;
  • Identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors of their citizens or others on the basis of religious belief”

Ironically the strongest supporters of the act have been conservative Evangelical Christians who understand the establishment of freedom of religion as a means to further their missionary activities. It is strongly opposed in the international community, particularly in Russia, Catholic strongholds in Latin American and throughout the Muslim world. The analysis presented here indicates that in many countries, including Indonesia, that totally unrestricted or unregulated religious freedom is not necessarily a source for stability and, indeed, that some regulation of religion may be a necessary condition for stability.

In general there would seem to be a correlation between high levels of economic development and degree of secularization with low levels of state interference in or management of religious affairs. However, the religious “free market” is also common among the least developed countries, particularly those of Sub-Saharan Africa. This observation applies equally to Muslim majority and Christian majority countries. Lesotho, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone are examples.

2. States with and Established Religion where Other Religions are not Restricted.

European countries such and Britain and the Scandinavian countries are important examples. These countries are historically and officially Protestant but adherence to and practice of other religions, including alternative Protestant faiths is not limited. In these countries with the exception of Norway established churches are at least partly state supported. Most of the historically Roman Catholic Countries of Western Europe formerly maintained Concordants with the Vatican establishing the primacy of the Catholic Church. The constitutions of Spain, Italy, Poland and most other Catholic majority countries have been amended to extend official recognition and government support to other religious communities.

Thailand is a Buddhist example. Theravada Buddhism is the official religion and the constitution specifies that the king must be a member of this religious community.

Many Muslim majority countries have similar state-religion relationships. State patronage of Islam often takes different forms as Islam does not have the corporatist or denominationalist of Christianity. Among the most common modes of state support for Islam are providing funds for mosque construction, religious eduction and funding and logistical support for the hajj. In many Muslim countries cases regarding family law (marriage, divorce and inheritance) are heard in state sponsored shari’ah courts. In many, family law cases of non-Muslims are relegated to independent religious tribunals of the minority religious communities. Jordan and Lebanon are examples.

Some countries do not have official religions but provide legal recognition for a single community. Guinea, which is approximately 85% Muslim and 10% Christian, does not have a state religion but does have a ministry for Islamic affairs

3. States Granting Official Recognition to Multiple Religions.

These are states that do not have official religions but grant legal recognition to two or more religious. The treatment of non-recognized religions ranges from toleration to prohibition and oppression. Germany is an especially complex case. The state collects “religious taxes” for more than 180 religious communities and sponsors Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious education in public schools. Because it lacks the denominational organization and hierarchies characteristic of Christianity efforts to draw Islam into this system have proved difficult and only marginally successful. In some countries with federal constitutions, government- religion relations are defined at the state or provincial as well as national levels. India and Nigeria are examples. In some of the states of Northern Nigeria which are overwhelmingly Muslim Islamic law is enforced. In some, but not all Indian states, state funds are used for the upkeep of Hindu temples while there are special provisions for Islam in the disputed (with Pakistan) Muslim majority state of Kashmir. With six officially recognized religions Indonesia clearly falls within this category.

4. States Recognizing Multiple Relgions but with Major Restrictions of Religious Groups and Practices Considered to be Socially Disruptive.

A large number of countries place serious restrictions on certain religious organizations and behaviors. Many Muslim majority countries restrict or ban the Amadiyah sect because of the teaching, considered to be heretical by other Muslims, the Muhammad was not the last of the Prophets. Similarly the Baha’I faith is restricted or outlawed because Muslims consider it to be a Shia’h heresy. In many Sunni Muslim countries the activities of the Shia’h are restricted. In Palistan there have been attempts to have the Shi’ah declared legally non-Muslims.

The religious activities most often singled out for restriction are prostelytization and conversion. These activities are outlawed in at least twenty eight countries and limited in others. These are: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijain, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Comoros, Greece, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Laos, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen. Countries with official religions are more4 likely than others to restrict or prohibit these activities. They are severely restricted in others including Pakistan,

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Anti-prostelytization laws or regulations can be found in countries with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim majorities. The religious communities most frequently outlawed are those who engage in active and aggressive prostelytization. Christian groups include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) Pentecostal and Evangelical Protestants. Muslim groups include Wahabis, who are often sponsored by co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and the Tabliqhi Jamaat, an extremely active, but entirely a-political, Pakistan based group with global reach.

Penalties for violating these laws and regulation vary greatly. In most of these countries foreign violators are most often fined and/or deported. Citizens are generally subject to beatings, fines and imprisonment. In Malaysia Muslim converts to Christianity have been detained in mental institutions and drug rehabilitation facilities. In Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia Muslim apostates are subject to execution, though it is rarely enforced.

5. States Providing Unofficial Support for a Dominant Religion

These are most often states in which there is a substantial religious majority and in which religion plays a major role in the construction of ethnic and national identies. Russia for example recognizes: "special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia's spirituality and culture." In these countries the leading religious tradition is often subsidized to a greater extent than others and is generally that of leading government figures. Activities regarded as hostile to that tradition may be restricted or outlawed. Restrictions on religious others range from severe repression to benign neglect. Burma and Sri Lanka are examples of countries in which members of minority religions are severely repressed. Greece, Japan and Columbia are cases in which religious minorities are relatively free to exercise their beliefs. This arrangement is most common in countries where historically religion and politics were closely linked. These include predominantly Roman

Catholic countries in Latin America, Orthodox countries of Russia and Eastern Europe and in Buddhist countries of South, East and Southeast Asia. To the extent that they do not have official religions these countries fit the contemporary pattern of religiously neutral, if not secular, states. In many cases, however, religion plays a larger role in public life than it does in secular societies with established religions such as those of Western Europe.

6. States Attempting to Influence the Interpretation of Religious Teachings

States that sponsor religious education, and there are many, almost by definition, attempt to influence the ways in which religion is interpreted. Curriculum design is perhaps the most subtle example of how states can shape t he interpretation of basic aspects of religious doctrine. Indonesia, India and many of the Orthodox and Catholic Christian states provide examples of this tendency. Others, especially China, resort to more draconian tactics. The Chinese government tries to control and regulate religion to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Communist Party.

Each of the five recognized religions (Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, and Protestantism) is linked to a government sponsored “patriotic organization” that provides it with “help and guidance” implementing social and religious goals. Religious groups that refuse such affiliation are considered to be “cults” and subject to severe repression. Singapore lies between states which are minimally invasive and the Chinese extreme. There the government strongly encourages socially engaged but politically passive interpretations of Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity. It strongly discourages religious communities that engage in aggressive prostelytization.

7. States the Cede Aspects of Authority to Religious Organizations

Modern secular states apply criminal and civil law uniformly to their entire populations. Some states, however, abrogate or have never attempt to regulate some aspects of civil law. By far the most common unregulated legal domain is family law. Many Muslim countries have separate courts staffed by ulama charged with the administration of family law codes, most which are based on a combination of shari’ah secular civil law. Oman and Saudi Arabia, for example, do not have codes of civil status. Israel and Lebanon have similar systems in which family law issues are delegated to the religious courts of the countries numerous religious communities. In other Majority Muslim countries including Pakistan and Indonesia Islamic courts are found in some autonomous regions.

8 State-Religion Relations in Contemporary Indonesia

State-religion relations in Indonesia are extremely complex and derive from a fundamental compromise made in the earliest days of the republic. To understand these and the ways in state-religion linkages are currently configured it is essential to keep in mind three basic features of Indonesian society and cultures. The first is that Indonesian society has not witnessed anything like the degree of secularization western societies have. The second is that the privatization of religion characteristic of western democracies has not occurred. Religion remains one of the most important factors in politics and public life in a more general sense. The third is that religious diversity is not evenly distributed through out the nation’s ethnic and territorial divisions. Hence questions concerning the role of religion in national life have always been intertwined with those concerning regionalism and ethnicity. The difficulties of managing these potentially centrifugal forces has led Indonesia to devise complex strategies which have at various times combined elements of four of the ideal types described above (2 through 5). There have been, and continue to be social groups and forces that would move the nation in the direction of one or six.

Indonesia has long prided itself as being neither a secular nor a religious state but as one inspired by the religiously (in a general rather than confessional sense) inspired ideology of Panca Sila or Five Principles. These are:

  1. Ketuhanan Maha Esa – Devotion to God
  2. Kemanusiaan yand adil dan berahad – Human society which is just and characterized by mutual respect
  3. Persatuan Indonesia – The unity of Indonesia
  4. Kerakyatan yang dipimpin oleh hikmat kebijaksanaan dalam bermusyawararan/perwakilan Society governed with wise justice in the context of mutual consultation and assistance
  5. Keadilan social baga seluruh rakyat Indonesia – Social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.

Nurcholish Madjid has shown that most of the vocabulary of Panca Sila is Arabic and that it can be understood best as being a deconfessionalized variant of common Islamic social and political principles. It was also the subject of intense negotiation at the time of the founding of the republic. The wording of the first principle was chosen to indicate clearly that the meaning is monotheism and not simply religiousness and as Madjid observes the “unity of Indonesia” was chosen instead of nationalism because of the suspicion with which some observant Muslims view this concept. Muslim leaders advocated the inclusion of what came to be known as the Jakarta Charter, “with the obligation for Muslims to live in accordance with shari’ah in the first principle, but relented when Christians, who are the majority in portions of Eastern Indonesia, threatened to establish their own state if they were including. Indonesia’s president Sukarno wanted “the unity of Indonesia” to be the first principle, which Muslim leaders could not accept. As a whole, what has come to be known as the “birth of Panaca Sila” required the notion of all three concepts: religion, ethnicity and territoriality. These continue be among the most important issues in Indonesian politics.

The development of Indonesian as the language of government, politics and education and an almost constant emphasis on religious and ethnic tolerance and pluralism are among the ways that Indonesia has sought to encourage its own survival. Indonesian is almost no one’s native language. Its establishment as a genuinely national language and the establishment of mass literacy are among the nation’s most important accomplishments and probably essential for its’ survival.

The management of religion has been equally important. For most of its history Indonesia recognized five religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism and Hinduism. One could “choose” from among these but not from other World Religions such as Jainism and Sikhism or from any of the country’s many indigenous or animistic traditions. To be a religion a tradition had to be monotheistic and have at least one Prophet and a Holy Book. This definition had perhaps unintended consequences. It led Buddhism and Hinduism, neither of which is inherently monotheistic to be defined if not understood in monotheistic ways. It also led some adherents of animistic traditions to simply define their religions as variants of Hinduism and still more to convert to Christianity. Conversion to Christianity became increasingly common after the abortive coupe of 1965 because not to “have” a recognized religion was associated with being Communist – hundreds of thousands of whom were killed in the spasm of political violence following the coupe attempt. Among many ethnic communities Christianity was a more popular choice than Islam largely because it did not require them to abandon eating pork, which is an essential part of many Indonesian and other Southeast Asian tribal diets. This in turn has contributed to concerns about “Christianization” among some segments of the Muslim community.

The question that Indonesia faces in the twenty-first century is that of how to strike a balance between ethno-linguistic, political and religious dimensions of collective identity. The Christian theologian and sociologist of religion Peter Berger has argued that in traditional societies that religion provides the “sacred canopy” that makes social and political cohesion possible. Like many other sociologists writing in the 1960s he saw secularization as the hand maiden of modernity and religious pluralism as a destructive social force, in part because of the degree to which it contributed to the emergence of secularism. In a more recent work Berger has retreated from this position and has come to question the validity of the secularization thesis. In a more recent study he writes: “the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false.”

To those of us who have devoted our lives to some combination of the study and practice of politics and religion in Indonesia this frank admission that the entire body of social science theory linking modernization and secularization is simply wrong, should come as no surprise. In Indonesia, modernization has proceeded at a dizzying pace for more than fifty years. The fears of some Muslim and Christian activists not with standing, there are few, if any, apparent signs of secularization. Religion, in forms ranging from process theology to traditional healing and accusations of sorcery, is everywhere – form the corridors and power and office towers of Jakarta to the most remote villages. Not only has religion in Indonesia successfully resisted the forces of what Thomas Luckmann terms “privatization.”

In Indonesian religion, in all its forms, remains very public and plays a central role in social and political discourse. Religious diversity is simply a fact. The fact that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation does not change the fact that it is and will remain characterized by religious diversity. Because it is diverse, powerful and public any Indonesian government must manage it in some way. Indonesia’s first president Sukarno attempted this by seeking to balance strands of seemingly incompatible ideologies: secular nationalism, political Islam and communism. This strategy failed contributing to the blood bath with which Indonesia’s second president Suharto’s “New Order” came to power. The New Order strategy for managing religion was complex. It included suppression of all but the vestiges of political Islam, the promotion of pluralistic theologies and personal piety and the heavy handed manipulation of the national ideology. Some government policies were perceived as promoting secularism. The threat of force was ever present.

In the 1970s and 1980s the government introduced a series of bills in the legislature that most observant Muslim found to be deeply offensive. One would have allowed secular marriage ceremonies. A second would have afforded official recognition to aliran kebatin – Javanese mystical groups that most observant Muslims consider to be heretical because the reject the ritual program mandated by shari’ah and teach the doctrine of the unity of God and the human soul. A third required that all social organizations adopt Panca Sila as their asas tunggal (sole organizing principle). All of the major Muslim organizations held the view that these bills promoted adultery and apostasy and were intended as a blow against Islamic organizations if not against Islam itself. The government ultimately compromised on the issues of secular marriage, which was not put into practice, and the aliran kepercayaan, supervision of which was assigned to the ministry of education and culture instead of the ministry of religion. It would not budge on the panca sila question.

The social organizations act allowed the government to disband any organization that did not “accept” Panca Sila. The leaders of Indonesia’s two largest organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah seriously considered active resistance but concluded that the cost in human life would be very high and that the probability of success minimal. Liberal, democracy oriented intellectuals including Nurcholish Madjid did not support the government’s policies, but did devise Islamic apologies for Panca Sila.

With the collapse of the New Order and the establishment of democratic governance and a greatly enhanced concern for freedom of speech and other human rights, Indonesia faces new challenges. Clearly the management of religious, ethnic and national sources of collective identity in the new open and democratic context are among them, particularly in light of the fact that there are individuals and groups who would use religion to incite communal violence and others who seek to impose shari’ah based social norms by legislative means at local and national levels. Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono put it this way:
"Being an Indonesian Muslim, therefore, necessitates a tolerant expression of one’s sense of being an Indonesian citizen, with all its rich nuances arising from family, ethnic and racial heritage including “enrichment of Islam through understanding the beliefs and precepts of other faiths.”

The fact that many Indonesians now question the usefulness of Panca Sila as what Berger calls the “sacred canopy” of the Nation makes these issues all the more crucial.

Reformasi era governments have liberalized restrictions on traditional Chinese religion according official recognition to Confucianism and permitting public celebrations of the Chinese New Year. There is now public discussion of granting similar recognition to the animistic agama suku (ethnic religions). Enormous sums have been invested in the Islamic higher education system which is the most important venue in which liberal, pluralistic understandings of Islam are developed and disseminated. Numerous Indonesian graduate students are now studying in Comparative Religion departments at US and other western universities. The establishment of the Ph.D. program in Inter-Religious Studies by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies in Yogyakarta is another step in the direction. The program is deeply committed to “inter-religious dialogue and the promotion of peace in Indonesia and the world.”

These are all positive signs that Indonesia has both the courage and the creativity to meet the challenge of managing religion in the new democratic environment. Indonesia’s democratic transition took place in the worst imaginable conditions, those of economic collapse and ethno-religious conflict. The fact that there have now been a series of free and fair elections bodes well for the future as does that that elections have not been dominated by religious political parties and other advocates of identity politics. But democracy is difficult. It places far more demands on its citizens than do authoritarian regimes. Among these is to accept the position that politics can not be understood as a zero sum game in which ballots can be used as tools to construct hegemonic structures in a pluralistic environment. If no single religion can be used as the basis for the sacred canopy of the new Indonesia it is to be hope that the trans-cultural and trans-religious pluralist values Professor Reid describes and ICRS embodies, will.