Religious Intolerance in Indonesia – Ambiguities Regarding Religious Inclusion Since Post-Independence

Posted By April 6, 2018 No Comments


With a population of 266 million people,[1] Indonesia is not only the world’s most populous Muslim country but boasts a diverse plural society composed of various ethnic and religious groups.[2] After gaining independence in 1945, the first Indonesian President, Sukarno, instituted the state ideology of Pancasila to foster nationalism and build a sense of ‘unity in diversity’.[3] With the implementation of the 1945 Constitution, which included Article 29, the recognition of freedom of religion as a human right, Indonesia has prided itself on being a religiously tolerant country.[4] In addition, Indonesia has ratified several international conventions in the last 20 years, which guarantee the right of freedom of religion and belief without discrimination.[5]

Yet, in recent years, there have been calls to attention by various sources including academics, journalists, and several watchdog organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Setara Institute reporting increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia. My aim in this paper is to explore these claims and analyze the potentially threatening rise of intolerance throughout the country. I will ultimately argue that religious intolerance in Indonesia is a complex matter, which entails not just the fact that intolerance has been gradually increasing over the years, but that the concept of religious tolerance that was established at independence is flawed, with the definition of religion and religious inclusion constituting a gray area, which has allowed it to be manipulated in certain ways. Furthermore, I will argue that there are various actors that have contributed to this intolerance, with a large part created and exacerbated by the state.

My paper will unfold as follows: I will first explore President Sukarno’s post-independence Indonesia and examine the ideology of the Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution. I will then discuss one of the most cited reports of religious intolerance in the country, concerning the Ahmadiyah community, a minority Muslim group who have lived in Indonesia since the 1920s. Finally, I will analyze the various actors involved in promoting religious intolerance and ultimately argue that the foundation for tolerance in Indonesia has been ambiguous since post-independence and the state among other actors has manipulated this ambiguity. I should include two disclaimers. The first is that I cannot possibly begin to cover all aspects of religious intolerance in Indonesia, as it is a wide and complicated matter. The second is that it is neither correct nor easy to label a country as being ‘religiously intolerant’ as some cases of intolerance against certain communities are not indicative of a country as a whole being intolerant. During my short time in Semarang, Indonesia in the summer of 2017, I met many wonderful individuals whose level of open-mindedness towards other cultures, religions, and values surpassed those I have met in North America. Religious intolerance is not so much an Indonesian problem, but a problem that spans the globe.

President Sukarno’s Pancasila and Religious Protection Post-Sukarno

Whenever conflict occurs in Indonesia, political and institutional leaders play an important role in its de-escalation, stressing reconciliation through an emphasis on narratives of good relations.[6] After the Second World War, Indonesia emerged from the ashes as a country that defined itself as a united state, at the same time recognizing the uniqueness of its diversity in its religions and beliefs.[7] Determined to build a strong nation, Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, instituted the state ideology of Pancasila.[8] Pancasila contained five principles, four of which were meant to instill values and ideals such as social justice, nationalism, and a representative government.[9] The most important principle, however, centered on the belief in God, which was meant to conciliate those who wished for an Islamic state after Indonesia gained independence.[10] However, this principle was intended to be particularly ambiguous to ensure that religious inclusion would shine through, even though the state did not regard itself as secular.[11] Important sections regarding religion include Article 29, which guarantees an individual’s right to worship as they choose.

Following the downfall of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, in 1998, Law No. 39/1999 was passed, which became the legal human rights framework in Indonesia.[12] This law specifically guarantees an individual the freedom to choose and practice their religion, as well as protection from discrimination, echoing Article 29 in the Constitution.[13] Furthermore, Indonesia is bound to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights[14] and in 1999 ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and in 2005, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[15] Thus, it can be argued that freedom concerning religion and belief in Indonesia has as a whole, been strengthened over the years.[16] Certain examples however, prove that this is not the case.

Targeted Groups – Growing Intolerance in Indonesia?

There are a number of minority religious groups that have been targeted, and that are still being targeted, which include but are not limited to: the Christian population, Shia Muslims, and the Ahmadiyah population.[17] According to Human Rights Watch, violations against freedom of religion has been on the rise since 2016, with the Setara Institute reporting an increase in acts of religious intolerance, rising from 236 (2015) to 270 (2016).[18]

Yet, perhaps one of the best-known minority religious populations that has been attacked or threatened with an attack long before 2016 is the Ahmadiyah community, which comprises of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 individuals in Indonesia.[19] Ahmadis have been in Indonesia since the 1920s and consider themselves to be Muslim, but because some of their beliefs differ from orthodox Islam, they are accused by many conservative Islamic sects to be deviants.[20] The Indonesian Ahmadiyah population is composed of two groups: the Ahmadiyah Muslim Community and the Lahore Ahmadiyah Movement for the Propagation of Islam.[21] They differ in their interpretations of the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who founded the religious movement in India at the end of the 19th Century.[22] The former, unlike the latter, assert that Muhammad is not the final prophet, as they believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is a prophet as well.[23]

Ahmadiyah communities have dealt with repeated physical attacks, as detailed by Nicola Colbran and Melissa Crouch. In Lombok, many Ahmadis fled to its capital, Mataram and have not returned as their homes and mosques were burned to the ground in 2006.[24] The government asked as many as 132 Ahmadis to migrate to other islands to avert conflict.[25] On June 1, 2008, a group of Ahmadis were attacked at the National Monument in Jakarta by extremist groups.[26] This date and event were significant as Ahmadis and others were gathered at the National Monument to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of the Pancasila and to support religious diversity and freedom.[27] In 2011, 1,000 anti-Ahmadiyah protestors mobbed an ongoing trial at the Ciginong District Court, where 20 individuals were being tried after they had attacked an Ahmadiyah mosque and set fire to the homes and vehicles of Ahmadi residents.[28] During the same month, members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) held a protest outside an Ahmadiyah mosque in Makassar.[29] Even back in 2005, violence and discrimination towards the Ahmadiyah community had become so widespread that the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission investigated violations against the Ahmadis and found cases of crimes against humanity, forced deportation, and persecution of Ahmadiyah members based on religious grounds.[30]

Factors and Actors Involved in Creating Religious Intolerance

Contrary to what one might believe, Robert Hefner in 2013 convincingly argues that terrorist extremists actually comprise a small minority of attacks against religious groups in Indonesia, as since 2002 the Indonesian government has instituted an effective anti-terror campaign.[31] In actuality, the majority of attacks against minority groups are perpetrated by Islamic militias, who seek to implement their own vision of public morality.[32] Not only has the government been hesitant to act on these attacks and provide protection for minority religious communities, they have in many ways exacerbated this problem. Furthermore, the very foundations of religious tolerance found in the Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution contain problematic ambiguities in terms of religious inclusion, which has allowed its interpretation to be manipulated.

Revisiting the Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution – The State’s Involvement

The six official religions recognized in Indonesia are: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.[33] These six religions fall under the supervision of the Department of Religious Affairs[34] and they each have their own religious institution, which are considered to be the highest religious authorities in Indonesia.[35] Since independence, Indonesian governments have interpreted ‘religion’ in a very narrow manner in legislation, policies, and regulations, applying them to only the six official religions.[36] Article 29 in the 1945 Constitution is a case in point, as it is highly ambiguous and in the past, the Ministry of Religion has argued that religious freedom and protection only apply to the six official religions.[37] Thus, the constitution has allowed increased government involvement in religious affairs to a degree that the state can define and decide the legitimacy of a religion.[38] In 1952, the government established the Supervisory Body of Local Beliefs in society (PAKEM) to suppress new ‘spiritual movements’.[39]

In 1965, when former President Suharto took office, many individuals scrambled to adopt one of the six official religions, as at the time, an individual could have easily been accused of being a communist and being ‘against the Pancasila’.[40] It is evident that President Suharto used the Pancasila to limit freedom of religion, as Indonesians were obligated to interpret the Pancasila in a homogenous manner.[41] The Presidential Decree No. 1/PNPS/1965 on the Prevention of Religious Abuse and/or Defamation or more commonly known as the Blasphemy Law, was passed by President Sukarno and made into law by President Suharto in 1969.[42] Two types of blasphemous acts are considered to be against the law: deviation from the six officially recognized religions and defamation.[43] Under this law, governments can ban religious groups, as well as convict and imprison individuals who are deemed to be breaking the Blasphemy Law.[44] Consequently, this law allows the government to further restrict, intervene, and control religious movements in Indonesia. In 2010, after coming under scrutiny and judicial review, the Blasphemy Law was once again upheld in court and deemed valid.[45]

It becomes evident that even minority populations that are considered to be a part of the six official religions are being targeted. As with the Ahmadiyah community in Indonesia, although they practice Islam, the government has constantly refused to provide protection, even encouraging threatening acts against them by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) and FPI. The MUI is one of the six official religious institutions and is partially government-funded.[46] The MUI has issued two fatwas, an Islamic legal decision, against the Ahmadiyah community: one in 1980 labeling the Ahmadiyah community as heretical, and another in 2005 labelling the group un-Islamic.[47] This quickly prompted attacks by the FPI on Ahmadi communities, homes, and mosques.[48] In 2008, the government issued Joint Regulation 3/2008 as a warning to the Ahmadiyah community and in 2010, the Minister of Religion declared that Indonesia should ban Ahmadis altogether.[49]

Colonial Effects

 It is important to note that colonialism and its effects should not be overlooked in this narrative. Dutch and Japanese colonial powers among others have had a lasting negative impact in Indonesia.[50] As Hefner argues, the Dutch instituted strict control and surveillance when it came to religious administration and encouraged religious conversion from Islam to Christianity.[51] During the Japanese occupation, the Office of Religious Affairs and the Indonesian Muslim Consultative Council were established and by the time Indonesia declared independence on August 1945, the country and its citizens were split. On the one side, there was support for the establishment of an Islamic state and on the other, a pluralistic nation state.[52] Thus, since independence, there has been an inherent conflict regarding religious inclusion.


 Religious intolerance is not a negligible issue in Indonesia. There is evidence that it is increasing, and minority religious groups bear the brunt of the attacks. Yet, it appears that the concept of religious intolerance itself has been a gray area since independence, which has largely been manipulated by the state as they hold the power to determine and define the legitimacy of certain religions and even sects within religions. The state has thus largely encouraged and exacerbated attacks against minority groups such as the Ahmadiyah community, using laws such as the Blasphemy Law to validate these attacks. The Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution, although perhaps genuine in their intent have also resulted in being used to support certain cases involving religious intolerance. Lynn Parker has convincingly proposed that religious intolerance should be addressed using religious education in schools.[53] If tolerance is to be entrenched in society, she argues that it should start in schools, where instead of a heavy emphasis on one religion, there should be an emphasis on interfaith education.[54] Yet, this issue of religious intolerance remains entrenched in Indonesian culture and history and a deeper reconciliation of the state’s involvement is only one, albeit perhaps the first step towards diminishing this intolerance.