Religious tension is a near constant part of life in Indonesia. In just the past couple of months, for example, there was an attack on an Ahmadiyah mosque in Sintang, West Kalimantan, and Christian preacher Muhammad Kace and Muslim imam Yahya Waloni were charged with blasphemy.
Governments across the world recognise that they cannot avoid intervening in the religious lives of their citizens to manage this kind of tension. Even in countries that call themselves secular – such as India, Bangladesh, Turkey, France and many other countries in Europe – governments often make policies to regulate religion and its manifestations.
In Indonesia, there are three main concepts for understanding the governance of religious diversity: religious harmony, religious freedom and religious moderation. These concepts are not just theoretical – they have real implications for the lives of Indonesian citizens.
An important moment that shaped ideas around religious harmony in Indonesia was the Muslim-Christian tension of 1967. In response to this, Soeharto, then acting president, opened an “Interreligious Dialogue” in late 1967, at which Religious Affairs Minister Muhammad Dachlan said “harmony between religious groups is a precondition for political and economic stability”.
In 1975, his successor, Mukti Ali, defined religious harmony as “a social condition in which all religious groups can live together without impinging on each other’s basic rights to carry out their religious obligations”.
After the fall of the New Order in 1998, the next significant development for the concept of religious harmony was the passage of Joint Ministerial Decree No. 8 and 9 of 2006. This ministerial decree discussed concepts including tolerance, mutual understanding, mutual respect, valuing equality in the practice of religious teaching, and cooperation in social life. The decree also mandated the establishment of Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB) – bodies that should include representation from the main religious groups in a region and are tasked with facilitating permits for houses of worship and responding to religious disputes. FKUB now operate in more than 500 provinces, municipalities and districts across the country.
The main criticism of the religious harmony concept, as Trisno Sutanto has explained, is that “harmony” has often acted more like “harmonising” or “harmonisation” – something forced from above, which benefits mainstream groups and is detrimental to minority groups. This was especially the case during the 32 years of the Soeharto regime. Nonetheless, several key words and phrases in the definition of harmony, like “without impinging on each other’s basic rights” and “equality”, showed that the concept was still open to interpretation in a way that was more democratic and in line with the Constitution.
Ideas about freedom of religion and beliefs have been around since Indonesia’s independence. The 1945 Constitution promised “freedom for all citizens to have a religion and to worship in accordance with their religions or beliefs” (Article 29). After 1998, this concept was legally strengthened by the Law on Human Rights (Law No. 39 of 1999) and in amendments to the Constitution (Article 28E, paragraphs 1 and 2). The most important principle for freedom of religion – namely, non-discrimination on the basis of religion or belief – was introduced in a diverse range of laws and regulations, including the Laws on Human Rights, Disaster Management (No. 24 of 2007), and Management of Social Conflict (No. 7 of 2012).
Criticism of religious freedom often plays on the semantics of the word “freedom” as a supposedly western concept, tapping into common fears about the “excessive freedoms” of the west. In fact, freedom of religion could be said to be the most Indonesian of the concepts explored here, in that it has the strongest legal and constitutional basis, in addition to being the oldest, dating back to at least 1945.
However, one consequence of the democratic reforms introduced after 1998 has been the opening of space for religious groups with highly diverse orientations. Groups that could not survive under Soeharto, including those with the aspiration to establish an Islamic caliphate, or explicitly enforce shari’a law, can now exist in Indonesia.
During the 10 years of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s leadership (2004-2014), groups like these were free to move and mobilise, even if the number of their followers remained small compared to the older and more established Islamic organisations, such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.
The peak of this movement came in 2016-2017 and centred around the Jakarta election, when these emerging groups managed to mobilise mass demonstrations – the biggest since 1998 – and lead them as far as the Presidential Palace. The government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo responded by banning Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia in 2017, followed by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in late 2020. This political context is important to understanding the concept of “religious moderation”, which emerged around 2018.
According to a book published by the Religious Affairs Ministry in 2019, Moderasi Beragama, the religious moderation concept was developed as “ammunition and a government policy alternative for handling extremist religious understandings”, and as a means to reduce violence and prevent intolerance and violent acts.
“Moderate” referred to a middle position, adhering to neither ultra-conservative nor liberal extremes. The concept was strongly legitimised by the National Medium Term Development Plan 2020-2024. In this document, religious moderation is understood as a means to achieve harmony, while the concept of “religious freedom” is not mentioned at all.
In many ways, it’s true that “moderation” is a good attitude to strive for, and that extremism can be a source of problems. But there are at least four problems with the “religious moderation” approach.
First, is it true that to prevent violent conflict we need “moderate” people? Conflict resolution theories argue that to overcome violent conflict, groups must cooperate and develop good relations. Religious moderation, on the other hand, has the potential to sharpen divisions between moderates and non-moderates. People do not have to be “moderate” to be able to cooperate, and “moderate” people do not necessarily cooperate well.
Second, the main target of religious moderation is the views, ideas or attitudes of individuals. There is an assumption, seen in many recent government policies on terrorism and extremism, that the main source of problems is the thoughts or beliefs of people (namely, non-moderate or radical views). But, as research on drivers of extremism shows, the cause of these issues is multidimensional. Emphasising one dimension will not be effective, and could even be counter-productive.
Third, using the concept of “religious moderation” to change the attitudes or views of individuals has the potential to draw the state too far into the thoughts of its citizens. When translated as a legal instrument, this can result in undue restrictions on civil liberties. If the state is responsible for defining what “moderate” means, how is this different from the top-down “harmonising” policies of the New Order? Will certain progressive or liberal views be labelled as “extreme” and considered to run counter to the aims of religious moderation? Will these be limited too? And with force?
Finally, the focus on changing the attitudes of individuals may overlook another source of the problem: the role of the state. The state considers that in promoting religious moderation it is fulfilling its duty to respect and manage religious diversity. But what can become an issue is how the state acts to manage this diversity. Should the state define what is good for citizens, out of the many diverse views and forms of religiosity (for example, being “moderate”)? Or should it protect the arena (of that diversity) to make sure that diverse views are respected and the arena is not dominated by certain groups in society?
In reality, the government may be a source of problems. Minority groups are often harmed when officials are unwilling to enforce the law to protect them. But there are even some laws – which the government continues to defend – that in fact incentivise intolerance of minority groups. The Religious Affairs Ministry’s book Moderasi Beragama touches on this issue: “it should be acknowledged that the emergence of a variety of policies on religion [like those related to proselytisation, blasphemy and houses of worship] have not increased moderate attitudes in the practice of religion or prevented conflict. However, if these religious regulations were abandoned, then religious conflict would increase”.
The fact is, the existence, not absence, of some regulations, such as the so-called Blasphemy Law (Law No. 1/PNPS/1965), appear to increase religious conflict. This law is frequently relied on by non-moderate groups as a legal justification for intolerance and hate (as in the case of Meiliana from Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, the Chinese Buddhist women jailed for blasphemy for complaining about a loud mosque loudspeaker). Moderate groups in Indonesia, like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, almost never use it. Rather than retaining such regulations, there are other options, such as improving or reforming them in line with existing human rights instruments.
Another area ripe for reform is the distinction between ‘religions’ (officially, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), which attract state recognition and support, and ‘beliefs’ (kepercayaaan – all other faiths), which usually do not. This categorisation, which originally derives from the Blasphemy Law, leaves unorthodox minority beliefs largely unprotected by the state and highly vulnerable to persecution, particularly by Muslim groups.
It is true that a legal approach is not the only way to manage religious diversity. But the government will always face questions if it encourages “religious moderation” at the same time as defending regulations like the Blasphemy Law that conflict with the goals of its religious moderation project. In fact, it could be said that it is the government and authorities that need to be “moderated” given their defence of these kinds of legal products. Religious moderation will be more readily accepted if its main target is the state apparatus.
While moderation is understood as a means of achieving religious harmony, what appears to be absent in the government’s efforts is attention to the norms of religious freedom, or other freedoms – like freedoms of expression, association, and so on. Religious moderation needs to be aligned with a human rights approach, an approach that demands the state assume responsibility (as a duty bearer) for guaranteeing the religious freedom of its citizens.
This demand does not exclusively mean further attention to laws and regulations. Religious governance and human rights (including freedom of religion) are not purely legal matters. But the norms of freedom of religion – especially the principles of equality, non-discrimination and non-coercion – should be the main principles of governance. Compared to the other two elements of religious governance, harmony and moderation, religious freedom has the strongest and most permanent constitutional basis, and therefore should be regarded as constitutive of the character of Indonesia and given much greater priority.
The implications of the concepts of religious harmony, freedom and moderation for policy are clear. For example, the draft amendments to the Criminal Code (RKUHP), which are again being debated in the legislature, include many articles regulating religion. Will the RKUHP support religious harmony? Will it be in line with values of religious moderation, or in fact the opposite? Will these articles be in line with commitments to religious freedom, as mandated by the Constitution?
This debate needs to become a priority in efforts to improve religious life in Indonesia.