Last Updated 15 October 2019

Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, has in the past had a relatively good reputation for plural religious identity united under a monotheistic state ideology, however, this reputation was largely in decline during the term (2004-2014) of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (“SBY”). Under president Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), elected 2014, there was some hope for reform, but atheists and the non-religious remain socially marginalised and legally unrecognised, and ‘blasphemy’ prosecutions against religion or belief minorities have continued apace.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

The constitution theoretically protects freedom of “religion or belief”, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association.  However, in practice these rights are often severely restricted and they are non-existent for non-religious citizens or anyone who does not believe in a god. On “Religion”, under article 29, awkwardly states both that:

“(1) The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God.”


“(2) The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.”

To register an organization in Indonesia, the organizers must declare their allegiance to the Basic Ideology of the State (called Pancasila); the first principle of Pancasila is ‘Belief in the one and only God’. That means no atheist group can legally register itself.

“A new hope”

Inaugurated in October 2014, new president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected on the promise of democratic and social reforms, in Indonesia’s first peaceful transfer of power between two popularly elected leaders. Time magazine called him “a new hope” for the country, noting that he faces challenges including religious extremism and radical Islamist threats to the country’s largely syncretic, relatively moderate Islam.

As the candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the crucial final days of Jokowi’s election campaign featured both a rock concert, successfully aimed at more younger and more liberal voters, as well as a brief pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, reportedly aimed at debunking “smears” that he is a Christian of Chinese descent (he is in fact a Javanese Muslim).

There are positive reports that the new government plans to make “religious freedom and minority protection a priority”:

“As they fend off attacks from Muslim fundamentalists, President Jokowi and his team already embody a new message of hope in Indonesia after less than a month on the job.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim has taken the first step towards genuine religious freedom. Last week, he announced a series of reforms that would remove barriers to the free practice of religion for non-Muslim communities.

A new law, meant to protect minority groups from extremist attacks and provocations, should be ready “within six months” and ensure that all citizens have the same “rights in matters of religion enshrined in the Constitution of 1945.

…At the same time, Interior Minister Tjahjo Kumolo has proposed changed [sic] to identity card Indonesians use, removing religious affiliation… a decision that has angered Muslim fundamentalists.”

Though there is scant mention of extending these specifically “religious” freedoms to include secular worldviews, there may be some optimistic hope that a relatively liberal government fighting off Islamist demands could also, in the longer-term, ease restriction on non-religious identities.

Education and children’s rights

Education in Indonesia is given a constitutional guarantee of being funded to at minimum 20% of the national budget, and a right for every child.

However, education is under joint control of the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The constitution defines education always in terms that are mixed up with distinctly religious aspiration: the aims of education (Article 31.3) are to “increase the level of spiritual belief, devoutness and moral character in the context of developing the life of the nation” and to do so (Article 31.5) “with the highest respect for religious values and national unity for the advancement of civilisation and prosperity of humankind”.

About 15% of students attend Islamic schools, many of which are pesantren (boarding schools). No single sect or approach dominates and this is generally an option arrived at by religious parents.

Most students attend state-run, non-sectarian (but not entirely secular) schools. Even outside of Islamic schools, the national education system instructs children in the principles of participation in the modern nation-state along somewhat nationalist lines. The teaching of the state ideology, Pancasila, has diminished somewhat but remains, with its heavy emphasis on monotheism as the primary tenet of national identity.

Family, community and society

Six religions, no non-religion

For the time being it remains the case that Indonesia recognizes only six official religions—Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism—and requires its citizens to adhere to one of these. Persons who do not identify with one of the six official religions, including people with no religion, continue to experience official discrimination. This discrimination occurs often in the context of civil registration of marriages and births and other situation involving family law.

Official ID cards must list one of the six official religions; therefore “atheism” or “Humanism” are not permitted options. However, since 2006, a minus sign (“-“) has been a permitted option under the category of religion. The minus category covers all other non-recognized religions, sects, and local traditional beliefs. It could, at least in theory, be used by atheists, although its actual use may depend on the attitude of the bureaucrat processing the application for an ID card.

In November 2014 the Interior Minister Tjahjo Kumolo proposed to remove religious identity from the cards altogether, but this remains a proposal and there is no timeline for its implementation.

Applicants for government jobs must also identify as belonging to one of the six official religions.

In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the prohibition on indigenous peoples from listing their religion on official identification cards, as well as those with no religion, was unconstitutional. The ruling came in response to a 2006 legal challenge to the law filed by several indigenous faith followers.  <>

Oppression in the name of religious conformity

The 2014 USCIRF Report notes that:

“Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism is increasingly threatened by the detentions of individuals considered religiously “deviant” and the ongoing intimidation, discrimination, and violence against religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians, Shi’a, Sufis, Hindus, Baha’is, and followers of indigenous religions. Government officials sometimes tolerate, and occasionally actively support, the efforts of extremist groups, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), to stop the perceived growth of religious minorities and police the orthodoxy of the Sunni majority”.

LGBTQ rights in Indonesia are increasingly maligned both in society and by the Government despite there being no law against sexual minorities as such. An intensification of Islamist demands drives growing intolerance of LGBTQ rights along with increasing verbal attacks on minority groups and the growing implementation of Islamic bylaws by regional governments across provinces such as Aceh and West Java. Public canings, in accordance with Sharia law, were beecoming commonplace in these areas by 2017.

This is a worrying change in a country that previously has been applauded for its diverse, heterogeneous society. Certain politicians and prominent Islamic groups (such as the Family Love Alliance or AILA) have been advocating for religious norms and values to be associated with more a more general Indonesian national identity.

Violations against women

There are serious concerns about a declining standard in the upholding of women’s rights. The social tendency to label women “good” or “bad”, feeds into a wider misogyny. In 2014 a woman who allegedly was “caught” with a married man was made a victim of gang rape in a vigilante attack and then herself sentenced to caning for her alleged “adultery”.

It was widely reported in December 2014 that the Indonesian police, which has been attempting a recruitment drive for female officers, subjects women candidates to a mandatory “two-fingered virginity” or “hymen” test. The police apparently do not believe this test does or should deter female applicant; a spokesperson for the police, Maj Gen Ronny Sompie, said the test was no reason to “respond negatively” to the recruitment drive, and that the purpose was to test for “sexually transmitted infection… in a professional manner.” The obviously unnecessary test is in complete violation of fundamental human rights. Female officers are also expected to be single and not marry in the first few years of service.

Religious law in society

The law allows implementation of Sharia law in Aceh province, with religious courts handed jurisdiction over economic transactions and criminal cases. Unmarried, unrelated members of the opposite sex are banned from close contact, alcohol consumption and gambling are prohibited. Non-Muslims are specifically exempted but given taboos against ‘coming out’ atheist this certainly means that some individuals will be pressured into the Sharia system.

Also in Aceh, an Islamic vice patrol known as Wilayatul Hisbah operates, enforcing Islamic dress codes, and bans on alcohol, gambling, and the acquaintance of unmarried, unrelated men and women without a “chaperon”.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is generally upheld, though censorship and self-censorship of books and films for allegedly obscene or blasphemous content is fairly common. Since 2011, authorities in Aceh have cracked down on “punks” for supposedly insulting Islam. Those rounded up by police are subjected to “re-education,” which includes the forcible shaving of their punk-rock hairstyles and a traditional cleansing ceremony.

“Blasphemy” and atheism

The country’s blasphemy law makes it illegal to promote other faiths, or atheism. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, criticism of religion is severely restricted and support for atheism is effectively banned. According to the constitution, the six recognized religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – are all equal. However, in the past decades, the blasphemy law has been frequently used against religion or belief minorities. According to a research carried out by the Jakarta Setara Institute, which tracks religious freedom in Indonesia, from 1965 to 2017 there were 97 cases of blasphemy accusations, 88 of those since 1998.

One example is that of Alexander Aan, a civil servant who was arrested in January 2012 after being mobbed for having criticized Islam on Facebook and for calling himself an atheist (see the ‘Highlighted cases’ section below).

In another famous example, on May 9, 2017, the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, usually known as ‘Ahok’, was sentenced to two years in prison for criminal ‘blasphemy’. The charges against him related to comments he made about the use of certain verses of the Quran which had been cited against him during the election campaign; as a Christian standing for office in a predominantly Muslim country, the implication was that Muslims should not be governed by a non-Muslim. Ahok contested this interpretation and use of the religious injunction, and moreover an edited Youtube clip went viral in which it was made to seem that he was criticizing the Qu’ran per se. This led to various Islamist groups calling for Ahok’s imprisonment, or even his execution, for “blasphemy”. After serving his sentence, Ahok was eventually released in 2019.

In 2018, Indonesian courts convicted 6 people on blasphemy charges and sentenced them to between one and five years in prison. They include Councillor Riano Jaya Wardhana, for defending Jakarta governor Ahok; a Christian who faced a smear campaign; a street vendor, Firdaus, for writing the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Muhammad’ on his sandals; a man called Arnoldy Bahari, who was found guilty of spreading hate speech by claiming to have experienced God’s presence and questioning the faith of other Muslims; and Christian priest Abraham Moses, who was known for recording a conversation with an online taxi driver, during which he quoted a Quran verse about marriage and tried to convince the driver to convert to Christianity.

In another 2018 conviction, Meiliana, a 44-year-old Chinese Buddhist, was found guilty of “insulting Islam” in a 2016 inccident; she had asked if her local mosque could lower the volume of its sound system in the call to prayer. A week after her request, she was attacked by a mob who also – because she is Buddhist – burned and ransacked at least 14 Buddhist temples. As of October 2019, Meiliana is still in jail.

Despite this consistent pattern of discrimination against religious and non-religious minorities, the Constitutional Court has rejected each of the three petitions that, over the last few years, have asked to revoke the existing blasphemy law. The third of these petitions, presented in 2018 by nine Ahmadiyah Muslims, who argued that the ‘blasphemy’ law fuels discrimination and abuse against religious minorities.

“Religious Rights Protection” Bill

It was announced in 2017 that the Religious Rights Protection Bill (which was expected to go before parliament by the end of 2017) would restrict religious minorities seeking to construct houses of worship. The draft law also imposed narrow criteria for a religion to receive state recognition, and increased the powers of the official Religious Harmony Forums. The draft law expanded the current sole criteria for a blasphemy offense of “showing hostility, abuse, or desecration” toward a religion to a total of seven criteria.

The draft law stated (Article 31) that anyone who persuades others to convert from their original religion faces a maximum prison term of four years. It allowed for six months in prison for anyone convicted of “purposefully creating noises near worship houses when people are conducting their religious ceremonies” (Article 32). And it allowed for a five-year prison term for anyone convicted of “illegally tainting, destroying, or burning a holy book, a worship house or ritual tools” (Article 34). The bill provides no definition for what would constitute “tainting” those objects.

The government has sought to justify the law on the basis that “existing regulations guaranteeing the protection of religious rights are neither sufficient nor applicable enough to the changing landscape of the society’s legal needs.”

Wider press freedoms

Indonesia has quite diverse media, but press freedom is hampered by a number of legal and regulatory restrictions. Strict but unevenly enforced licensing rules mean that thousands of television and radio stations operate illegally. Foreign journalists are not authorized to travel to the restive provinces of Papua and West Papua without special permission. Reporters often practice self-censorship to avoid running afoul of civil and criminal libel laws.

In addition to legal obstacles, reporters sometimes face violence and intimidation, which in many cases goes unpunished.

The 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) extended libel and other restrictions to the internet and online media, criminalizing the distribution or accessibility of information or documents that are “contrary to the moral norms of Indonesia” or related to gambling, blackmail, or defamation.

Conservative religious beliefs are having an impact on broadcasting in Indonesia, with anti-gay crackdowns pushing for bans on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ‘behaviour’ and content on from television.

Regressive new laws proposed, and protested, in 2019

As of 2019, a list of controversial legal reforms has been proposed by the government, including the introduction of financial penalties for anyone found guilty of “insulting the president’s dignity”, four-year jail terms for women who have abortions outside of medical emergencies or rape, the censoring of contraceptive advice, and the expansion of blasphemy laws, which reportedly “would make it illegal to promote atheism”.

Moreover, the proposed reforms aim to ban consensual sex outside of marriage, intensifying the already existing discrimination against the LGBT community, since same-sex marriage continues to be illegal. The new laws would also criminalize criticism of a judge, publication of “fake news”, bestiality and black magic.

While the government planned to pass these reforms before new lawmakers entered parliament on 1 October 2019, President Widodo eventually postponed adoption of the bill amid protests which were taking place throughout the country against the proposed changes in legislation. The passing of the reforms is now left to the discretion of the new parliament, where a few of the conservative hardliners have been replaced, but negotiations are still ongoing.

Highlighted cases

In January 2012, Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant in the province of West Sumatra, was arrested after being attacked by a mob of Muslim militants. The mob was reacting to statements Aan made on Facebook which criticized Islam and said he had left Islam and become an atheist. The police charged Aan on three separate counts: insulting religion (which has a maximum sentence of five years jail), the electronic transmission of defamatory comments (six years jail), and false reporting on an official form (six years jail). The charges of blasphemy and defamation related to his criticism of Islam on Facebook. The final charge claimed that his application for his civil service job falsely stated he was Muslim when he was in fact an atheist. On June 14, 2012, a district court sentenced Alexander Aan to two years and six months in prison for “spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity.” Aan was also reportedly fined 100 million rupiah (US $10,600). He was released in February 2014.

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