The law and religious intolerance in Indonesia

Note: This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By Nur Amali Ibrahim
Associate Professor of Religious Studies & International Studies, Indiana University


Religious freedom does not exist in Indonesia. This may seem to be a harsh assessment of the world’s third most populous democracy and reputably one of the most tolerant Muslim nations. After all, Indonesia’s 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion. More recently, in 2006, Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which specifies that states are to respect the right of citizens to religious freedom, including the right of religious minorities to profess their own religion. Religious freedom, however, is a promise that has not been fulfilled by the state (for more details on the concept of religious freedom and its limitations, see Sullivan 2005).

The absence of religious freedom stems from the fact that the Indonesian state, like other secular powers, imposes on society its definition of what religion is, what counts as religion. The state recognizes only six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Furthermore, each religion has its own appointed national council that has been authorized to define what is considered orthodox beliefs and practices. Deviations from these central tenets will be punished under article 156a of the Indonesian criminal code, also known as the blasphemy law. Offenders can be imprisoned for up to five years.

Interestingly, there is an inverse relationship between the number of prosecutions under the blasphemy law and the degree of political freedom in Indonesia. The law was seldom used during the authoritarian regime of President Suharto (1967-1998), with just eight court cases in the entire time. This did not mean that Suharto permitted religious freedom. Suharto was an army general who bulldozed his way to power by massacring half a million communists and overthrowing an incumbent government. Given Suharto’s Cold War credentials, his administration regarded private piety as essential for keeping Indonesians away from communism, which was widely assumed to be synonymous with atheism. At the same time, Suharto was a staunch secular nationalist. The public role of religion was curbed so that it could not pose a political threat to the secular state or inhibit the push toward modernization and economic development. To deal with the problems posed by religious actors, the Suharto regime utilized various forms of punishment that included extrajudicial ones like torture and forced disappearances.

New restrictions were placed on religious freedom with the advent of democracy. Indonesia ushered in democratic rule and free and fair elections in 1998, when Suharto was forced to resign from office by mass demonstrations. Whereas religion was repressed under authoritarianism, democracy enabled the proliferation of religious expression. There emerged revisionist forms of religion — for example, liberal Islam (Ibrahim 2018) — as well as eclectic and nondenominational forms of spirituality — for example, Islamic self-help programs (Rudnyckyj 2010) and groups founded by people claiming prophecy (Howell 2005). Conservative Islamist groups, which also grew in influence and power during democracy, began voicing their opposition towards “deviant” religiosities in the country. Some Islamist groups demanded legal prosecution while others carried out vigilante attacks on those labeled as deviants. These Islamist claims have received official endorsement. The semi-governmental and conservative Indonesian Council of Religious Clerics (Majelis Ulema Indonesia) released fatwas declaring the minority groups Ahmadiyah and Shi’a to be outside of Islam. Another fatwa, which was targeted at the liberal Islam movement, denounced the principles of secularism, pluralism and liberalism.

In this context of rising religious conservatism in Indonesia, the blasphemy law began to be used as a weapon against religious freedom (Crouch 2012; Telle 2018). There have been at least 150 blasphemy convictions since 1998, a sharp increase compared to the Suharto era. Importantly, however, the Islamist aim of turning Indonesia into a morally conservative nation has received support from government leaders and secular politicians who do not necessarily share the same interests, but who wish to consolidate power by tapping into populist Islamist sentiment.

Collaborations between Islamists, state actors and politicians in blasphemy prosecutions can best be observed in the high-profile case involving the Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, best known by his nickname Ahok. An ethnic Chinese and a Christian, Ahok said jokingly at a campaign stop in 2017 that a particular verse in the Quran was being misused to dissuade Muslims from voting for him. The remarks were edited to suggest Ahok was insulting the Quran, triggering a protest by 800,000 Muslims in the streets of Jakarta demanding for Ahok’s arrest (Ali-Fauzi 2018). The state subsequently pursued legal action against him. Prosecutors indicted the governor for hate speech, but in a move that surprised the public, a five-judge panel vetoed the prosecutors and charged Ahok with the weightier crime of blasphemy. With top officials from the Indonesian Council of Religious Clerics serving as the state’s expert witnesses, Ahok was finally sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He was also defeated in his re-election campaign for governor. Given that Ahok is a close ally of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who was himself campaigning for re-election in 2019, commentators have suggested that the blasphemy case was orchestrated by political opponents who wished to snatch the powerful Jakarta governor’s post and weaken Jokowi.

Most blasphemy charges affect ordinary people, though these cases are no less caught up in national politicking. A particularly controversial case involved a Chinese Buddhist woman, Meliana, who in 2016 complained about the volume of the call to prayer (azan) from a mosque in her hometown of Tanjung Balai in Sumatra (Harsono 2018). Meliana privately asked the mosque caretaker’s daughter if the volume could be lowered, but rumors quickly spread that she demanded that all Muslims stop the azan, which led to attacks on her house as well as Buddhist temples by hardliner mobs. The blasphemy charge was brought against Meliana only two years later, in 2018, not by her neighbors, but by Islamist organizations. She was eventually sentenced to one and a half years in prison. The timing of the charge, which occurred shortly after Ahok’s case, has led commentators to suggest that it was a political attempt to increase pressure on Jakarta. Regardless of political motivations, the case highlights the instrumental role played by courts in contemporary Indonesia in defining good/bad religion and criminalizing religious difference. When law becomes the preferred method for managing pluralism, seemingly small problems like a noise complaint can easily escalate, thus depriving local communities of the ability to resolve neighborly conflicts.

Conservative Islamist efforts to restrict religious freedom have now set the tone for how political contests are played out. Opponents of conservative Islamists are also turning to the law to deprive them of their religious freedom. In 2017, Jokowi issued a presidential regulation to ban the Islamist organization, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), on grounds that the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic caliphate rather than to Indonesian secular nationalism. The government’s claims of urgent security reasons for the ban seem unconvincing, given that HTI has publicly expressed its pro-caliphate views for decades and without the use of violence. The real motivations, commentators suggest, are likely political (Fealy 2017). Since the massive Islamist mobilization against Ahok, in which HTI was a major campaigner, the government has been scrambling to counter Islamist power by rallying support from “moderate” Muslim organizations. There is evidence indicating that the government coordinated with Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization and self-proclaimed representative of “moderate” Islam, to build a case against HTI. The ban, therefore, signals the government’s intent to push back against Islamists. Inadvertently, however, the ban also turns the illiberal HTI into a poster child for the fight for freedom of speech in Indonesia, and further legitimizes the use of law in dealing with views regarded as repulsive.

Can religious freedom be secured in Indonesia? The answers are complicated. Perhaps religious freedom can never be attained in any secular state that seeks to define the parameters of religion and where it belongs in society. Perhaps religious freedom cannot exist in Indonesia without constitutionally reforming the list of officially recognized religions. In the shorter run, however, it may be possible to turn Indonesia into a more inclusive society that is accepting of religious diversity. To achieve this, the blasphemy law must first be repealed.




Ali-Fauzi, Ihsan. 16 May 2018. “Nationalism and Islamic Populism in Indonesia.” Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Crouch, Melissa. 2012. “Law and Religion in Indonesia: The Constitutional Court and the Blasphemy Law.” Asian Journal of Comparative Law 7(1):1-46.

Fealy, Gregory. 17 July 2017. “Jokowi’s Bungled Ban of Hizbut Tahrir.” The Interpreter.

Harsono, Andreas. 25 October 2018. “The Human Cost of Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law.” Human Rights Watch.

Howell, Julia Day. 2005. “Muslims, the New Age and Marginal Religions in Indonesia: Changing Meanings of Religious Pluralism.” Social Compass 52(4):473-493.

Ibrahim, Nur Amali. 2018. Improvisational Islam: Indonesian Youth in a Time of Possibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rudnyckyj, Daromir. 2010. Spiritual Economies: Islam, Globalization, and the Afterlife of Development. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. 2005. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Telle, Kari. 2018. “Faith on Trial: Blasphemy and ‘Lawfare’ in Indonesia.” Ethnos 83(2):371-391.