Problems with Indonesia’s Religious Democracy

Gde Dwitya Arief Metera | CRCS | Perspective

The “Defend Islam” rally on Dec. 2, 2016, demanding the arrest of the then governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Photo: ZAB.

[To read the Indonesian translation of this article, click this link: Persoalan-persoalan Terkait Demokrasi Religius di Indonesia]

One of the central questions in the debates ignited by the blasphemy case of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama concerns the future of Indonesia’s democracy. Countering waves of pessimists, Jeremy Menchik argues that the case does not necessarily mean Indonesia’s democracy is on the brink of becoming an authoritarian theocracy. Rather, the argument goes, it is merely a part of the dynamic within Indonesia’s religious democracy wherein religious militants and religious moderates struggle to define the extent to which their religious aspirations can and should be enshrined in the public sphere. Following the logic of the proponents of religious democracy, there is nothing inherent in religious politics that will threaten democracy insofar as they are channeled procedurally in a democratic way instead of through direct clerical control in politics. Students of democracy are only beginning to understand non-secular forms of democracy like that found in Indonesia, where the demos can disagree on many things but come together on their intentions to be religious and their convictions that the state should help facilitate their religiosity. The upshot of this argument is clear: pessimistic views of the future of Indonesia’s democracy—which perhaps stems from our secular bias—should be qualified.

What is less emphasized in such an argument is the question of what is at stake when the state is involved in facilitating the religiosity of the demos. Zainal Abidin Bagir has made this point astutely: the issue is not religious conservatism in Indonesian society or the presence of social forces advancing religious claims in Indonesian politics. These events are neither new nor necessarily undemocratic. Rather, what is at stake is the potential for violence involved in making these religious claims. It is detrimental for democracy if these religious claims are advanced violently outside of the democratic political procedures. This is the case of, for example, vigilantism under the banner of religion.

Taking this argument further, one could make a stronger statement: making a certain successful religious claim in the public sphere, such as in the effort to enforce religious beliefs and practices as law, implicitly involves violence. By enshrining religious beliefs and practices into law we invite the coercive capacity of the state to enforce them. The difference in religiosity before and after the passing of religious laws is clear: religiosity will be shifted from practices that were previously voluntarily enforced as social and cultural norms into practices that are coercively enforced through violence.

If the practices and beliefs that are enshrined into law happens to be inclusive in nature and are accepted via democratic procedures involving other religious groups in the polity, then it is true that there is potentially nothing inherently undemocratic about mobilization of religious claims in the public sphere. However, it is undemocratic if these beliefs and religious claims happen to be exclusivist in nature and have the effect of denying rights, whether communal or individual, enjoyed by the religious majority to the non-religious or minorities of other religions. Once exclusivist religious practices and beliefs are enshrined in law and backed by the coercive capacity of the state, we face the twin problems of coercion and exclusion within a democracy. In short, we might be seeing legalization of intolerance through democratic procedures. At this point, the question should be whether democracy is still meaningful. This is so even within the confines of the procedural definition of democracy as it explicitly demands inclusion as its constitutive element. The question of exclusion and coercion is worrying in the mobilization of religious claims into public policies in a religious democracy.

Blasphemy law can serve as a suggestive case study. The law is arguably a form of protection offered by the state to the religious demos, and one where religious value is enshrined into state law. If the law was passed through democratic procedures and if it is not wielded to exclude the non-religious and minorities of other religions from forming dissenting interpretations on religious issues, then there is nothing inherently undemocratic about it. At the same time, blasphemy law can potentially be a form of exclusion since they can be utilized to prevent dissenting interpretations regarding religious beliefs and practices from entering the supposedly democratic public sphere. Theoretically, accusations of blasphemy can be used to exclude those with unorthodox views from forming dissenting interpretations on religious issues. Dissenting interpretations are not synonymous with blasphemy, defamation of religion, or even hate speech. When the religious public have disagreements as to whether certain cases are indeed blasphemy, we see this kind of dissenting interpretations at play. In a democracy, dissenting opinions are accommodated.

Exclusion as an undemocratic element potentially found in blasphemy law merits heightened attention. A quick glance at blasphemy laws globally suggests that both democracies and authoritarian regimes pass blasphemy laws. The PEW Research Center reported in 2012 that globally there are 32 countries with blasphemy laws. Out of those 32 countries, there are indeed high-performing democracies such as Indonesia, India, and even Western democracies such as Germany, Netherland, and Greece. Mostly, however, blasphemy laws are found in non-democracies. Excluding Malta, Maldives, and Western Sahara whose POLITY IV scores are not available, 62% of those countries having blasphemy laws are non-democracies (countries having scores below 6) in contrast to only 38% of them that are democracies (countries with scores above 6). The average POLITY IV scores of all countries with blasphemy laws is 1.4, suggesting that there are quite a handful of strong autocracies (countries with highly negative scores such as -10) canceling out the scores of high-performing full democracies. The association of blasphemy laws with both democracies and autocracies indicates that the law can be utilized to a differing effect, and might originate from non-democratic procedures. There is no guarantee that the law will be utilized appropriately to protect religious demos from blasphemy instead of excluding dissenting interpretations of a certain religious issues.

Figure 1. Countries with Blasphemy Law and their POLITY IV scores.*

The proliferation of blasphemy cases in recent years arguably indicates this problem of exclusion found in Indonesia’s religious democracy. Religious minorities are the dominant victims of these cases. In addition, available data from four different studies—see the figure below—regarding cases of blasphemy laws in Indonesia indicate a worrying trend. The absolute number of blasphemy cases per year reported in each available study varies, but the studies agree on one fact: the number has generally increased as Indonesia has consolidated its democracy. Ironically, the increase is in contrast with the situation during the authoritarian New Order period, when the incidents were far fewer and sparser. The number of blasphemy cases reported during the New Order varied according to different reports, but the total cases reported were as low as 3 and as high as 10 for the whole three decades of its tenure. These numbers are far fewer than the current total of 65 cases reported only within a little more than a decade after democratization. The direction and trend of the blasphemy cases after democratization therefore suggests a growing problem for Indonesia’s religious democracy. This problem consequently brings Indonesia closer to the realm of illiberal democracies—in the sense of being a procedural democracy but lacking substantive tolerance and freedom at both communal or individual levels—instead of bringing it closer to the realm of tolerant religious democracies.

Figure 2. Blasphemy Cases in Indonesia 2001-2014**

Besides problems pertaining to exclusion inherent in blasphemy cases, Indonesia’s religious democracy is also overwhelmed by the problem of coercion, as reflected in the incidents of religious violence taking place across the country. Available data on cases of violence from the National Violence Monitoring System demonstrate an increasing number of cases of religious violence after Indonesia’s democratization, and a steep increase in recent years. The NVMS documents those cases in which the trigger was either religious issues within a religion or inter-religious issues. These cases are troubling in the context of a democratic polity since they suggest that the availability of democratic procedures to settle conflicts, including conflicting religious claims, does not guarantee a decrease of religious violence. As students of democracy know very well, the reason why democracy is better from other regime type is due to its capacity to offer transition of power without violence. Admittedly, the causes of religious violence cannot be solely attributed to regime type but its increasing presence in a democracy is worrying nevertheless.

Figure 3. Religious Violence in Indonesia 2003-2014***

This presentation is not intended to predict that Indonesia has a bleak future as a religious democracy. Admittedly, much more evidence and analysis would be needed to make that case. Rather, it is intended to qualify the more-often-than-not overly optimistic view regarding the prospects for Indonesia’s religious democracy. It is one thing to make the case that Indonesia is not following the trajectory of a typical Western secular democracy. It is, however, another thing for advocates to claim that Indonesia’s religious democracy is necessarily tolerant and substantively inclusive. The direction and trend of religious and political life under Indonesia’s religious democracy suggests existing problems that need to be emphasized instead of obscured.

Gde Dwitya Arief Metera is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, Northwestern University. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Universitas Gadjah Mada, researching the evolution of state-religion relations in Indonesia after democratization.


Sources of figures:

*Figure 1: PEW Research Center Report 2012; POLITY IV Dataset

**Figure 2: Crouch, Melissa (2012), Law & Religion in Indonesia: The Constitutional Court and the Blasphemy Law, Asian Journal of Comparative Law, p. 12; Sihombing et al (2012), Injustice in Belief: Monitoring the Result of Cases on Blasphemy of Religion and Religious Hate Speech in Indonesia, Indonesian Legal Resource Center/ILRC, p. 72; Amnesty International (2014), Prosecuting Beliefs: Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law; Basuki, Tobias & Alif Satria (2017), Instrumen Hukum Penodaan Agama dan Peraturan Bersama Menteri: Sebuah Pencegah atau Sumber Konflik, Analisis CSIS Vol. 46, No.1, p.57.

***Figure 3: Basuki & Satria’s (2017:58) calculation of data from National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS) compiled by Sana Jaffrey and the World Bank.

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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