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Alexander Aan, sent to prison for his atheistic belief (Photo: Globalpost.com)

Is There a Place for Atheist Citizens in Indonesia?

OurIndonesia – Indonesia is neither a theocracy, nor is it a laical state. In order to understand the role religion plays in both state and society in Indonesia the political circumstances in which Indonesia was born as a nation have to be considered. Religion, most of all Islam, became an anticolonial force in the struggle for independence. For instance, the first nationalist and anticolonial mass organization, Sarekat Islam, was based on Islam as the religion of the colonialized people, but also catholic groups joined the anticolonial movement.

The role of religion –especially Islam – should play in the state of Indonesia is betoken in the national ideology of Pancasila (five pillars): “On almighty God” (ketuhanan yang maha esa) became the first principle of pancasila. However, the term ketuhanan yang maha esa is difficult to translate; its meaning is somewhere in between “almighty God”, “divine omnipotence” and “monotheism”. It is hard to define what kind of role that “one God” should exactly play in government and society since the term is open to various interpretations.

Until nowadays, the state maintains a close relationship with religion in both political and symbolic-performative terms. Through the ministry of religion for instance, the state is cross-linked with institutionalized religion. Moreover, in political ceremonies, prayers and references to God or religious phrases are common perfomances. Not surprisingly, the state and its institutions perceive themselves as protectors of religion, since their very legitimations, in return, depend on religion and their religious performances.

An example here is the anti-blasphemy law, passed in 1965 just months before the mass killings of communists occurred. Pushed by rightwing fraction in the military, the law intended to serve as a tool to fight communist influence in society and government. Religious groups engaged in the mass killings and the narrative of protecting religion from infidel communists became hegemonic during Suharto’s New Order.

The anti-blasphemy law, which does not only outlaws both “deviant” interpretations of the officially recognized and monotheistic conceptualized religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism) also attempts to prevent the spared atheism. It was subject of a lawsuit, filed to the Indonesian Constitutional Court (Mahkamah Konstitusi) by human right organizations, Christian organizations and representatives of indigenous religions who are not recognized either.

In their point of view, the anti-blasphemy-law was against the freedom of faith and it conflicts with the constitution. In 2009, the constitutional court decided that the anti-blasphemy law is not against the constitution and in line with the freedom of faith as the court argued Indonesia is a country that has to maintain and protect religion (that is the officially recognized religion). Furthermore, the Indonesian people are by court portrayed as a religious people – in this point of view Indonesian atheists are implicitly alien presences in the Indonesian people although they are Indonesian citizens.

On the basis of the anti-blasphemy law, atheists can be punished, if they discuss atheism in public (for that can be perceived as an attempt to spread atheism), which also includes online posts and discussions. In 2012, Alexander Aan was arrested for two and a half years because he had founded an atheist group on Facebook. But not only has the anti-blasphemy law hindered open expression of atheist people in Indonesia, avowed atheists do often face stigmatization and social sanctions by society and family.

Moreover, hard-liner Islamic groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam) or Hizbut Tahir Indonesia call for the capital punishment of apostates. They are not alone with their opinion, according to a 2010 poll by Pew Research Center, 30% of all Indonesians are in favor of sentencing to death those abandoned Islam. That is why most atheists and apostates pretend to be religious, but question or even mock religion in online forums where they can express themselves freely without fear.

However, atheism is now a subject of controversy in Indonesia and some atheists struggle for recognition as non-believers. The Facebook-group Anda Bertanya Atheist Menjawab (you ask, atheists answer) received almost 55,000 likes. Atheists also founded a homonymous blog. Its purpose is to gain recognition for atheists by politely explaining the existence of atheism in Indonesia.

That is a difficult challenge. For the very core of Indonesian identity, atheism still emerges as the constitutive outside – associated with threats for both state and culture. Atheism in the appearance of communist ideology was constructed as a threat during the New Order, when religion was used as a tool to fight political opposition from the left. Until today, atheism is perceived as a force working against cultural and religious values. Is there, thus, a place for atheist citizens in Indonesia?

The state and society can promote religion in public performances, but after all religiosity is also an attitude every individual has to adopt him- or herself. In times of the so-called “Islamic State”, the aftermath of 9/11, the Bali Bombings and the Charlie-Hebdo-massacre in Paris, Indonesia’s public debate and opinion on religion is moving into four directions in Indonesia: some claim that violence in the name of Islam is a conspiracy carried out by the West in order to blame Islam, some are even support terrorist groups.

Others try to develop Islamic justification for pluralism and tolerance, attempting to tie in with thinkers like Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholis Madjid. Last but not least, here is a small number of people in Indonesia questioning religion in general since reactionary groups use it for their purposes.

The recognition of atheist citizens highly depends on the way religion will be discussed in Indonesia: Will religion in general be negotiated in public debates as a term inaccessible for every kind of critique or will it be discussed in a more sophisticated way, paying attention to both the importance of religion for national integration in Indonesia and the threat it can become for the very same target.