Indonesia #2: Despite deep piety, Indonesia is tolerant of religious diversity

This is the second post in a series of Six things Australians should learn about Indonesia. (Introduction here and #1 on growth and poverty reduction here.)

Indonesia is a deeply religious society. 87% of Indonesian’s 250 million population are Muslim, making it the largest Muslim population on earth. In my inner Jakarta apartment, I wake daily at 4am to calls to prayer from at least six different mosques.

I happen to live next door to a church, which pumps out booming hymns several days a week. Sunday is epic. With the organ and choir in full swing for the main service, the clock strikes mid-day and the calls to prayer suddenly crash in over the top. It all blends into a blaring, indistinct drone, a full surround-sound experience.

Here’s how Australians and Indonesians compare when surveyed about the importance of religion:

indonesia religion 2

While religiosity in the Anglophone world is in decline, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend in Indonesia. If anything, it’s the opposite. The emerging middle class, the ‘aspirationals’ as we might call them in Australia, seem to be getting more pious, and conspicuously so.

Notwithstanding the religiosity, the vast majority of Indonesians are quite tolerant of religious diversity. Inter-religious harmony is a central principle of Indonesia’s national ideology, Pancasila, and its constitution.

Indonesia represents five different world religions in its public holidays (there are a lot of public holidays). This kind of openness would be a tough ask in (generally tolerant) Australia. I can picture the “Ban Sharia Halal Tax Day” protesters already.

Indonesia’s law can even be strangely liberal. For example, you can buy alcohol at local supermarkets, something that’s mostly banned in beer-swilling, wine-sipping Australia.

Indonesia is democratic. Islamic groups, given their mass public support, play a significant role in Indonesia’s civil society. The two major Islamic organisations – NU  and Muhammadiyah – have a proud record of promoting tolerance.

In Australia, we’re used to thinking of religious politics as pulling society towards intolerance, but in Indonesia these Muslim organisations, and their associated political wings, are the strongest voices for harmony.

The Indonesia’s 50 million-strong NU is the largest Muslim organisation in world. It has played a central role in establishing good governance in Indonesia.

The revered former leader of NU, and later Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid was a leading figure establishing human rights after the Suharto-era. He was a principled activist for religious harmony, including lobbying for and protecting other faiths.

It should be noted that Indonesia’s brand of religious pluralism is quite different to secular liberalism. Indonesia is not an Islamic state, but it is explicitly a religious state. All citizens must indicate an affiliation with one of six major world religions. Ostentatious promotion of atheism can land you in jail.

Homosexuality is legal, but generally not open. LGBT groups risk bullying and intimidation from the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front. These guys make up a very small but very vocal proportion of the population

It’s fair to say hard-line thug groups are getting louder, and religious violence is creeping up again. The situation is particularly grim for Ahmadiyah, an unpopular Muslim sect. As Ahmadiyah is regarded as heretical distortion of true Islam, it lacks the constitutional protection enshrined for mainstream religious faiths.

In addition, there is some intolerance to Shiites, and Christian churches are burnt intermittently in certain areas (a recent spate of these in Aceh attracted condemnation from President Widodo). In Christian-majority Papua, there have been attacks against Muslims.

Questions have been raised about whether some authorities within Indonesia should have devoted more resources into tackling religious violence.

Given Indonesia’s complex decentralised structure and bureaucratic politics, there is a wide spectrum of ideologies and interests with a stake in law enforcement at the local level. As happens occasionally in Australia, some Indonesian councils exploit local planning powers as a dubious excuse to obstruct minority places of worship.

These growing tensions are a concern, and I plan on exploring this further in the future. But it’s also important not to overstate the situation. It’s coming from a low base. Apparently there were 220 incidents of religious violence in 2013. This might sound a lot, but it’s proportionately small in a country 250 million people.

The experience of day-to-day life in Indonesia is remarkably peaceful. If you look across human history, it’s uncommon for societies as intensely devout as Indonesia to have such successful inter-religious harmony. For a country with a turbulent history, establishing this has been an extraordinary achievement.


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