Learning to govern religion democratically in Indonesia

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Announcements by Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin and Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo that they plan to change the way that the government regulates religious affairs is a promising sign that the administration of President Joko Widodo will work to improve the rights of religious minorities. At the same time, this reform has sparked concern among Islamic civil society groups like Muhammadiyah that reforming the regulation of religion means abandoning the country’s commitment to the promotion of Belief in God. These proposals have also prompted suggestions that the reforms should follow the model of Malaysia, a troubling argument given that Indonesia has had more success than its neighbor in transitioning to a more open model of governance. At the heart of this debate is a simple question: How do democracies regulate religious affairs?

While some activists feel that the best regulation of religion is the least regulation of religion, this is not the policy of most states. Most states, including most democracies, are heavily involved in the management of religion. These democracies manage to synthesize their commitments to individual human rights with the promotion of the religious values that are central to the country’s national identity and sociopolitical institutions. In other words, the Indonesian state need not become secular in order to protect minority rights; it simply needs to learn from the policies of consolidated democracies like Greece, Austria, Switzerland, Senegal, Romania and India.

For example, religious education in schools has been an important part of the Indonesian nation developing common values and communal ties. Indonesia is not unusual in making religious education mandatory; 14 other democracies do the same. This policy is tolerant to the recognized minority religions, but discriminates against students whose faiths fall outside those recognized by the state, like the Sunda Wiwitan. Members of unrecognized faiths have kept their children out of schools rather than subject them to mandatory education in one of the recognized religions.

Such discrimination is not inherent to governing religion. The 1965 blasphemy law states that other religions such as Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, and Taoism cannot be banned in Indonesia, and makes clear that the Religious Affairs Ministry could simply recognize additional religions. Another policy that could remedy this discrimination is for students of unrecognized religions to be accommodated in a class on comparative religions or ethics; Indonesia is unusual among democracies in not providing an option to take comparative religions or ethics, nor allowing students to withdraw on request.

Greece has compulsory religious education in primary and secondary schools but students may be exempted upon request. In Austria, attendance in religious instruction is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year. In some Swiss cantons religious education is mandatory although parents can submit a waver and have their children withdraw. Senegal provides formal education in multiple religions with an option to withdraw. In sum, democracies can mandate religious education in schools as long as students have a choice in which religion they are incorporated including an option to study comparative religions or ethics.

Another potentially useful policy is a multi-tiered registration system for religious groups, with different privileges attached to different tiers.

In Romania, registered religious denominations are recognized as public utilities that benefit the entire population. The state recognizes eighteen denominations that enjoy the right to build houses of worship, perform rights of baptism, marriage, or burial, a guarantee to state noninterference, and protection against public stereotypes and negative media campaigns. The second tier is composed of religious associations that also get tax breaks but do not otherwise enjoy the advantages of recognition.

A similar example is Austria, which has three tiers of registration. The highest are religious societies, which have the authority to participate in mandatory church contributions programs, provide government-funded religious instruction in schools, and bring religious workers into the country. The second tier is reserved for confessional communities, which must have 300 members, a written version of their doctrine and must differ from other societies or confessional communities. Religious groups that do not qualify for the first two tiers may become legal associations, which have juridical standing and can own real estate but cannot receive government funding.

This tiered registration system is an example of an institutional mechanism for promoting religious values without persecuting minority faiths. Democratic states that demand registration may promote orthodox religious values through recognized privileges, but they must also allow heterodox groups like Shiites and the Baha’i to register and receive protection from persecution. A multi-tiered registration system is informally already in effect through the differing recognition systems of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Home Affairs Ministry; formalizing this process and allowing all registered groups to list their religious identification on their identity card (KTP), or to leave the column blank, would be consistent with the protection of individual rights, the promotion of communal values, and the transparency that befits Indonesia’s consolidated democracy.

A third useful policy would be to differentiate between blasphemy and heresy. Indonesia’s blasphemy law is not unusual in forbidding instigation of religious hatred through speech, press or disturbing religious rituals; 14 other democracies have blasphemy laws. Indonesia is unusual, however, in that the law is extended to prosecute heresy by small sects like Lia Eden, Amanat Keagungan Ilahi, and to individuals like Herison Riwu. India provides a good example of how splinter groups like Ahmadiyah can exist without being endorsed by the majority or persecuted. India distinguishes acts of blasphemy (defiling religions) from acts of heresy (belief that runs counter to orthodox doctrines). The Kerala High Court has ruled that Ahmadis cannot be prosecuted for blasphemy despite differences from orthodox Sunni doctrine. In other words, India manages to punish acts of blasphemy that are intended to foster communal violence without persecuting small religious sects for holding beliefs that differ from the majority.

These are three examples of strategies modern democracies employ to balance the promotion of religious values with their obligation to protect individuals who hold views that are contrary to the majority. While the United States receives an inordinate amount of attention from supporters and opponents of secular government, it is an empirical oddity among modern democracies. Instead, scholars, policy makers, and activists in Indonesia would benefit from studying Romania, Austria, India, Greece, Senegal, Switzerland, and other religious democracies in order to discern more productive examples of how to govern religion.

Jeremy Menchik for Jakarta Globe

Source: ucanews.com (Nov. 19, 2014)


Jeremy Menchik is an assistant professor in the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. His forthcoming book, “Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance Without Liberalism,” explores the meaning of tolerance to leaders of the Islamic organizations Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah and Persatuan Islam.

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