Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Don't Cry For Me, Indonesia

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country by population. About 87% of its 237 million citizens are Muslim. I have been there a total of three times, as recently as 2010. Two of my relatives are currently living in Bali as ex-patriots. I've always enjoyed going to Indonesia and whenever I went I never really felt like I was in a "Muslim" country at all. It seemed to me, a lot more like the popular images of Bangkok Thailand, filled with "discotheques" and seedy prostitutes. Indonesia was for a long time, perhaps along with Turkey, a shining example of a moderate Muslim country that could counter the crude stereotypes of many of the Muslim majority countries of the Middle East, and I can tell you that first hand. I first went there when I was 13 and I remember going out to a nightclub, being served beer and being able to buy cigarettes without any problem.

But perhaps I saw it through a filter. I've only been to two areas in Indonesia - Jakarta, the capital city on the island of Java, and the island of Bali, which is the predominantly Hindu part of the country, known to tourists for its nightlife. Just like in the US, religiosity in Indonesia increases once you get out of the big cities. Generally speaking, the further west in Indonesia that you go and the more rural the part of the country, the more likely you'll find people who are deeply religious. And in Indonesia, "deeply religious" tends to mean deeply Muslim, as Indonesians are at least about as Muslim as Americans are Christian.

Unlike the US however, Indonesia is not a secular country. The country only recognizes six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Atheists and agnostics are not officially recognized and public expression of atheism could be deemed illegal if it is seen as "publicly expressing feelings or doing something that spreads hatred, abuse or taints certain religions in Indonesia in a way that could cause someone to disbelieve religion.” Some parts of the country even have a form of Sharia Law, although it varies. This blasphemy law that was recently upheld by the Indonesian Constitutional Court also allows the state to regulate the six officially recognized religions and to deem blasphemous whatever it considers unorthodox. This has resulted in the government banning members of certain denominations from being able to practice their religion because their unorthodox interpretations differ from the state-approved interpretations.

The situation is even worse for atheists. In early 2012, an Indonesian man named, Alexander Aan stated that god did not exist on a Facebook page along with some criticism of Islam and was found guilty of violating the country's blasphemy laws and given a two and a half year sentence and a $10,600 fine (which is a lot of money in Indonesia.) In jail, Aan was reportedly beaten and converted to Islam as a result of it. According to Indonesia's blasphemy law, it is illegal to spread atheism or criticize one of its six officially recognized religions. This means that if you're an atheist in Indonesia, you better keep it in the closet. In fact, since atheism isn't officially recognized, Indonesian law requires that every Indonesian citizen be classified into one of those six officially recognized religions, and the national identity card that every Indonesian citizen must carry has to state it. So in Indonesia, you must officially deny your own atheism according to the law.

This is the type of nonsense that occurs when religion and state are allowed to mix.

Reading about Aan's case, I've thought to myself, that could have been me. I could have posted an anti-religious rant on Facebook while I was in Indonesia. I could have spent two years in an Indonesian jail merely for doing what I do almost everyday on this blog. Perhaps they would have had mercy on me since I'm not a citizen there, perhaps not. Reading the reports about Aan's case makes me think of the kind of theocratic madness that is going on in Indonesia right now. Recently the country has been moving towards a more conservative, hard line interpretation of Islam, influenced by Wahhabi clerics from the Middle East. Things that were once tolerated openly, like women wearing mini-skirts, are now coming under attack. It makes me sick to see Indonesia slowly turning into a Saudi Arabian-style conservative theocracy and I'm weary about visiting the country again.

I remember siting in a cafe in Bali when I was there in 2010 and picking up an English speaking newspaper and scanning the headlines for religious conflicts. It didn't take me long to find news stories about Muslims who were violently intimidating local Christians against proselytizing Muslims. In one article I remembered reading, they interviewed a local Islamic cleric who stated that Christians who proselytize would be shot, and some of them were. These kinds of small, local incidents must happen all over the Islamic world without anyone in the West ever becoming aware of them and it shows you the kind of attitude many conservative Muslims have towards non-Muslims: criticize Islam or spread your own religion and we'll kill or violently intimidate you.

I enjoy my freedom of speech very much and I could never live in a country where I couldn't express my thoughts and criticize those who I disagreed with. What Indonesia desperately needs is secularism and pressure from the West to loosen up on its blasphemy laws perhaps through a boycott, a trade embargo or from a torrent of public criticism. The Qur'an and the Haddith do not, to my knowledge, describe legal penalties for blasphemy but instead speak about punishment in the hereafter. I can live with that. I can live with the threat of hell so long as you do not punish me in this world. But due to conservative interpretations in dozens of Muslim majority countries around the world, someone like Alexander Aan (or yours truly) could be jailed, murdered or even executed for publicly criticizing Islam or Mohammad. See here: How Many Countries Would I Get Killed In For Writing This Blog?

I struggle here to identify who the enemy is. Is it the religion itself or its followers? Certainly the Islamic faith, which has no principle of secularism and prescribes vitriol for anyone who dares criticize its dogma is to blame, but conservative followers of Islam (especially those of its conservative Wahhabi interpretations) make it worse. And sure, I know that millions of Muslims around the world (as well as in Indonesia) are not to be blamed for any of this. Moderate Muslims who respect secularism and freedom of speech I have no major quarrel with, I just wish there were more of them and they made their voices heard. But since Islam puts so much emphasis on strict obedience to the Qur'an and submission to god, I think it will be extremely difficult in many cases for moderate Muslims to feel motivated in vocally supporting the rights of those to insult their religion.

And so it appears that Indonesia has fallen off the map as an example of what a moderate Muslim country can look like due to its draconian blasphemy laws and increasingly conservative attitudes that are violating the most basic of all human rights: freedom of conscience.

Don't cry for me, Indonesia, cry for yourself. Cry for what you've become.


  1. It's nice reading your article about my country. It's even nicer to discuss this more.
    If agnostics and atheists are not religion why should the gov. recognize them? And yes, some friends of mine are agnostics/ atheists, they are fine not being recognized, since the thing they want is freedom for themselves. IMO agnostics and atheists are like kids who don't wanna stay in their house, so why do the parents have to introduce them to their relatives/guest? Is it mean? Hmm, pretty much it. But, that's why someone said that every decision is followed by risk.

    I haven't got time to read the rest of your article especially the reason why you tried to write such a thing. Further discussion would be very welcome. @jojonael

    1. Why shouldn't people who have no religion be recognized? Are you saying they should be treated like kids with no freedom or rights? I'm sure your agnostic/atheist friends don't want to go to prison for expressing themselves.

  2. what i don't like about your article is "Things that were once tolerated openly, like women wearing mini-skirts, are now coming under attack." you don't know our culture. it's just people trying to bring back cultural tradition of our country. don't always think that whatever western country think as "freedom" will apply anywhere else.

    1. Originally the culture of Indonesia was not Muslim.

    2. Freedom is just that, freedom. Allowing people their own choices. That would include western choices.



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