Religion Made in Indonesia

Thursday, March 5th, 2020, 14:39 WIB


Wednesday Forum Report

Written By: Jekonia Tarigan

People may think that “religion” is made in heaven, but not in Indonesia! 

This is how Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, Director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), began his presentation during the Wednesday Forum,  a weekly discussion held by the Center for Religious and Cross cultural Studies (CRCS, Master’s-level Program) in conjunction with ICRS in Room 406 at the Graduate School of Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. 

The theme for Dr. Bagir’s presentation was “Made in Indonesia: Agama and Kepercayaan as a Case of Religion Making.”  Dr. Bagir explained that, in Indonesia, adherents of indigenous religions have long struggled with discrimination due to Indonesia’s political and legal conditions as to what constitutes an officially recognized religion (e.g. monotheism, presence of a holy book and prophet, and transnational followers).  The attempt to define religion in this way serves to exclude belief systems and adherents thereto who do not fit the state’s criteria.  For these reasons, Indonesia recognizes only six official religions.  Hundreds of religions, indigenous to Indonesia or historically practiced within the archipelago, are distinguished from “religion” by the state and designated as “kepercayaan” or “beliefs.”

Dr. Bagir focused his presentation on the “religion-making” process as seen within Indonesia’s framing of its constitution and subsequent Constitutional Court rulings.  Since the early days of independence, Indonesia struggled with the formulation of the national ideology, Pancasila, as it related to religion.  Article 29(1), for instance, originally stated, “The state is based on (belief in) God/Divinity, with the obligation to perform Islamic shari’a for its adherents.”  However, later the sentence “the obligation to perform Islamic shari’a,” known as the Jakarta Charter, was deleted.  Article 29(2) mentions, “The state guarantees each and every citizen the freedom of religion and of worship in accordance with his religion and his beliefs.”  Dr. Bagir explained that although the Constitution utilizes the term “religion,” it makes no explicit definition of the term.  However, the law on blasphemy (UU No. 1/PNPS/1965) finds, “religions embraced by the majority of Indonesian people: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism; plus other world religions.”  This law has served to define “official” religions within Indonesia until today.  Later legal precedent, notably the Law on Civil Administration (UU No. 23/2006; Arts. 61 and 64) distinguished adherents of Indonesia’s traditional religions as “penghayat kepercayaan,” but this designation did not include official recognition as it pertained to the national identification card.  

The problems related to the state’s definition of “religion” and “beliefs” are quite complex and multifaceted. After long process of judicial review related to the Law on Civil Administration, the latest decision of the Constitutional Court in 2017 was to extend recognition to penghayat kepercayaan on their ID card.  This decision is seen as outstanding progress for the recognition of indigenous religions within Indonesia.  Nevertheless, the question remaining to be answered is “what is religion?”  The Constitutional Court’s ruling only concerned kepercayaan, continuing the earlier notions that all “religion” outside the officially recognized religions are “beliefs” within Indonesia’ legal framework.  The consequence of the continued lack of clarity as to what constitutes religion means it is difficult to determine the status of certain religious groups, such as the Baha’i.  Is Baha’i a religion, in its own right, or is it a “belief” only?  Against these notions, however, the question must be asked, “should the Court have defined religion?” 

Dr. Bagir’s presentation demonstrated the complexity of religion-making in Indonesia, one which has evolved as a historical process involving the state (from above) and the society (from below) leading to the unique expressions of religion and its construction in the Indonesian context.

Photo Illustration By: Ferganata Indra Riatmoko