Monday, May 05, 2014

Freedom of religion, but not atheism, in Indonesia

by Salman Hameed

There are increasing number of atheism stories coming out from the Muslim world. In some cases it is about someone's proclamation as an atheist (see the case in Indonesia below), in others it is about the government or political groups silencing opponents by calling them atheists (see for example, the riots in Bangladesh last year). But doubters of all shades (from deists to hardcore atheists) have always been present in all societies, and Muslim countries are no exception. The sudden increase of such stories is probably due to a combination of reasons. On the one hand, you have the globalization of religion-atheism debate (one can be a participant is this debate from a computer anywhere in world) and a related increase in the number of people who declare themselves to be atheists. In the debate over self-expression in many parts of the Muslim world, the declaration of atheism then becomes one of the battles in deeply religious societies. On the other hand, the social upheavals (and political turmoil in many cases) of the past few years are leading to intolerance towards religious minorities (including those of different Muslim sects) and atheists boogeymen (for example, see Egypt). In addition, such stories become a rallying cry for fundamentalists (see the case of Saudi Arabia) as well as a good material for newspapers in the West (see again the case of Saudi Arabia, but also see a US example).

All that said, the Indonesian atheism case is troubling but it also highlights some of the tensions of adjusting to the modern world. Here is a case of an Indonesian who struggled with his faith, became an atheist, commented on a Facebook page started by Indonesians living in the Netherlands, and went to jail for 19 months on the charge of "inciting religious hatred". From yesterday's NYT:
Growing up in a conservative Muslim household in rural West Sumatra, Alexander Aan
hid a dark secret beginning at age 9: He did not believe in God. His feelings only hardened as he got older and he faked his way through daily prayers, Islamic holidays and the fasting month of Ramadan. 
He stopped praying in 2008, when he was 26, and he finally told his parents and three younger siblings that he was an atheist — a rare revelation in a country like Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. They responded with disappointment and expressions of hope that he would return to Islam. 
But Mr. Aan neither returned to Islam nor confined his secret to his family, and he ended up in prison after running afoul of a 2008 law restricting electronic communications. He had joined an atheist Facebook group started by Indonesians living in the Netherlands, and in 2011 he began posting commentaries outlining why he did not think God existed. 
“When I saw, with my own eyes, poor people, people on television caught up in war, people who were hungry or ill, it made me uncomfortable,” Mr. Aan, now 32, said in an interview. “What is the meaning of this? As a Muslim, I had questioned God — what is the meaning of God?” He was released on parole on Jan. 27 after serving more than 19 months on a charge of inciting religious hatred.
And here is the bit where freedom of religion is well, not exactly freedom of religion:
Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, enshrines monotheism, and blasphemy is illegal. However, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and speech, and the country is 16 years into a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 
But Mr. Aan’s case is one of an increasing number of instances of persecution connected to freedom of religion in Indonesia in recent years. Although Indonesia has influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, every year there have been hundreds of episodes, including violent attacks, targeting religious minorities like Christians and Shiite and Ahmadiyah Muslims, as well as dozens of arrests over blasphemy against Islam. Numerous churches have been closed for lacking proper permits.
All of this is tied to experimentation with a new media as well as with a new democracy:
“It’s funny — we say we have freedom of expression, but it’s only up to a certain point,” said Enda Nasution, an Indonesian blogger. “I think we are absorbing all of these new norms, and with the Internet, we are experimenting with what we can and can’t do. Atheism is a no-no, it seems.” 
Christian groups and religious and human rights advocates say that rising religious intolerance is also linked to the efforts to promote regional autonomy in Indonesia in 1999 as part of the country’s transition to democracy after three decades of highly centralized, authoritarian rule under President Suharto. 
More than half of Indonesia’s 491 provincial districts have enacted various bylaws inspired by Islamic law, or Shariah, in recent years. 
“So much power was given to local authorities, and in many cases — in particular in regions where Muslim organizations dominated — there were violations against religious freedom, and freedom, for example, for someone to say they are an atheist,” said Theophilus Bela, secretary general of the Indonesian Conference on Religions for Peace, a nongovernmental organization focused on interfaith dialogue.
I still think that all of this is an adjustment phase towards a broader acceptance of global religious plurality (hmm…yes, seeing the glass at a 50% level), and we are seeing the expected bumps on the road. This won't comfort people like Aan, who unfortunately, are paying the price simply for their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Read the full story here

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