Alexander An was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2012 for writing "God does not exist" in a Facebook post.

Alexander An, a trainee civil servant from West Sumatra, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2012 for writing “God does not exist” in a Facebook post. Photo by Andri El Faruqi for Tempo.


The recent symposium on “Protecting Pancasila from the Threat of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and Other Ideologies” brought together Islamic hard-liners and military figures and once again highlighted the highly controversial and vulnerable place of atheists in Indonesian society.


In the aftermath of the events of 30 September 1965, described by the New Order regime as an attempted communist coup, up to a million people were killed and many imprisoned for suspected membership of or affiliation with the PKI. The supposed atheism of the PKI was used to justify banning the party’s activities and intensify anti-communist passions. Fifty years on, atheism in Indonesia is still associated with communism and subversion.


In fact, the PKI had an ambivalent attitude toward religion, and was not strictly atheist in its doctrines. By 1954, the party had at least nominally accepted the Pancasila, the five-point national ideology. This is enshrined in the preamble to the Indonesian Constitution and has as its first pillar “belief in Almighty God”. In a speech in 1962, PKI leader DN Aidit stated:


“The communists recognise that accepting the Pantja Sila, one of the five principles of which is One Divine Omnipotence, includes the understanding of not being allowed to make anti-religious propaganda in Indonesia. This we do accept because we communists have indeed no interest in carrying out such propaganda. But on the other hand, communists do also demand that because of the other silas, religion may not be imposed on people, since this is not in line with humanitarian feelings, nationalist feelings, not in harmony with democracy and justice.”


The New Order government consistently equated communism with atheism. As Islamic scholar Nurcholis Madjid said, atheism has been treated as enemy of the state since 1966, and a citizen cannot claim to be an atheist without serious consequences. Through the New Order years, and even into the post-1998 era, condemnation of atheism was institutionalised. The celebration of Pancasila Day on 1 June, for example, has become a celebration of both Muslim piety and anti-atheism.


It is difficult to find any legitimate basis for atheism in Indonesian law. Even the concept of religious freedom has been contested since the foundation of the state in 1945. Although the original 1945 Constitution held that the state shall be based upon the belief in Almighty God, it also declared that “the state guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his or her own religion or belief”. When the Constitution was amended between 1999 and 2002, religious freedom was strengthened with the insertion of Article 28E. It states that “every person is free to choose and practice the religion of his or her choice” and that “every person has the right to freedom of belief, and to express views and thoughts in accordance with his or her conscience”.


These provisions should, in theory, allow citizens to choose any religion they wish and should be read with the first pillar of Pancasila, which suggests that every Indonesian citizen must be a theist, that is, believe in a god. There is, however, no legal provision in Indonesia that specifically prohibits atheism. As the Constitutional Court made clear in its decision on the 1965 Blasphemy Law, a person may not be punished for his or her personal beliefs or thoughts, because they occur in the private realm (forum internum). According to the Court’s former chief justice, Mahfud MD, while the Pancasila provides the basis for Indonesia to be a state that believes in God, these principles are yet to be embodied in laws that would impose an enforceable obligation of private belief on citizens. It is clear, however, that citizens can certainly be punished for personal beliefs that are expressed in public (forum externum) if they are seen to breach a law.


Debate over the place of atheism in contemporary Indonesia most recently surfaced with the case of Alexander An (also known as Aan) in 2012. Aan was a trainee civil servant from West Sumatra, who posted the statement “God does not exist” in the “Minang Atheists” Facebook group, along with two other comments about Muhammad deemed highly offensive by many members of the Muslim community. Aan was charged with intentionally spreading information intended to incite hatred against an individual or group based on ethnicity, religion, race, or group, under Article 28(2) of the 2008 Information and Electronic Transactions Law (the ITE Law); blasphemy, under 156a of the Criminal Code; and intending to draw others away from belief in God, in violation of article 156b of the Code.


These charges were problematic because the sentence “God does not exist” was not “directed at an individual or group” and did not contain an invitation to other people, necessary components of offences under the ITE Law and the Criminal Code. In the end, Aan was not convicted of any offence under the Criminal Code but was found guilty under the ITE Law and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.


A closer examination of Aan’s conviction shows that it was not his private atheism that was on trial. Rather, it was the public (forum externum) manifestation of this atheism (as expressed on Facebook) that was deemed to be blasphemous and the source of public unrest. Aan’s prosecution was, in fact, really about freedom of expression rather than freedom of belief.


The collapse of the repressive Soeharto regime in 1998 prompted expectations of greater freedom of expression. President BJ Habibie abolished restrictions on freedom of the press, and granted amnesty to political prisoners who had been jailed for exercising their freedom of expression. In the next few years, a number of guarantees of freedom of expression were inserted into the amended constitution and new laws on the press and broadcasting were passed. Guarantees of freedom of expression also appear in Law No. 39 of 1999 on Human Rights and Law No. 12 of 2005 on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But despite these reforms, human rights, and freedom of expression, remain conditional.


Article 28J(2) of the Constitution states: “in exercising his or her rights and freedoms, every person must observe the restrictions established by law for the sole purpose of guaranteeing the recognition and respect of the rights and freedoms of others and satisfying just demands based on considerations of morality, religious values, security and public order in a democratic society”. The government routinely leans on this article to impose limitations on human rights, including both freedom of expression and freedom of religion. In doing so, legislators and law enforcement officials tend to use the sentiments of the Muslim majority as a barometer. If a freely expressed opinion contradicts the beliefs of this group (embodied in the phrase “morality, religious values, and security and public order”) then it is usually considered legitimate to curtail it. The Constitutional Court has consistently supported this approach. The constitutional right of freedom of expression is therefore highly vulnerable and shaped by social and religious dynamics.


Freedom of expression in Indonesian political history has not been built on any awareness that it is a key element of strengthening democracy. In practice, it has been little more than a temporary phenomenon that accompanies regime change, rather than a genuine and ongoing commitment to guarantee the rights of all citizens to express their opinions.


Although Indonesia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of expression, it also contains restrictions on those same rights. This allows the state to curtail religious freedom and freedom of expression in the face of intolerant political groups, and has resulted in institutionalisation of discrimination in the state apparatus. This explains the prejudicial treatment of religious minorities and atheists in post-Soeharto Indonesia, with the case of Alexander An being one of the most obvious examples.


A democracy cannot function properly without the freedom to express opinions. Although the Indonesian Constitution allows freedom of opinion to be restricted when it threatens security, order, health and public morality, or the basic rights and freedoms of other people, the vaguely worded articles in the ITE Law and the Criminal Code clearly require interpretation by the authorities in determining whether a specific act does, in fact, constitute such a threat. They should not be swayed by public pressure when doing so.


This post is an edited extract from “The Decreasing Space for Non-Religious Expression in Indonesia: The Case of Atheism”, Ismail Hasani’s chapter in the book Religion, Law and Intolerance in Indonesia, edited by Tim Lindsey and Helen Pausacker, published in 2016 by Routledge. 


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