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24 Mar 2016

The Politics of Regulating Religion: State, Civil Society and the Quest for Religious Freedom in Modern Indonesia

Ismatu Ropi, June 2012
The Australian National University

This study analyses the state involvement in religious life in modern Indonesia. It will focus on how the state has constructed a variety of policies on religion. At the heart of this issue is a tension between ensuring religious order and harmony on the one hand, and protecting religious freedom on another. Successive Indonesia governments have grappled with problem but have increasingly prioritized order and harmony over the rights of Indonesian citizens.

The state role on religion is implicitly justified in the Pancasila (the Five Principles), the Indonesian ideology, which includes the principle of Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa (generic meaning: the belief in ‘Almighty God’). This First Principle of Pancasila becomes the main basis for the acknowledgement of religiosity in the state system. It has also encompassed a variety of legal arrangements like the Constitution and lawmaking as well as political activism in modern Indonesia.

Nevertheless, the contest over interpreting the meaning of Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa particularly by Muslim activists was also apparent. At the end, the insertion of an ‘Islamic interpretation’ of the loose clause of Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa has had a certain impact upon the issuing of state policies based on Islamic precepts. In turn this Muslim-based interpretation on this principle has served the main paramount of the government in intervening religious life.

Hence, while the Indonesian constitutions have preserved religious freedom, by the same token it has also tended to construct wide-ranging discretionary powers in the government to control religion and to oversee religious freedom. Thus, regulations on religious affairs often end up not protecting religious rights, but rather undermine them. This is because those regulations reflect majority concerns instead upholding minority rights. The cases to point out are a number of regulations on religious affairs that are tended to be discriminative and restrictive towards the minorities groups such as the aliran kebatinan (Javanese mysticism), local religions and the Ahmadiyah groups in Indonesia.

Overall this study argues that the history of the politics of regulating religion has been about what I call ‘the constant negotiation’ for the boundaries of authority in regulating religious affairs between the state and the majority. In this vein the government is eager to oversee and strictly control religious activities, but at the same time the majority group is interested to steer the direction of the state to be closer to their norms and values. This condition remains in Indonesian stage even until today.

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