Fear and Loathing in Indonesia

Posted by on January 22, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 11 comments

Australia’s neighbour Indonesia, home to one of the largest armies in the world, is a fiercely religious place. It officially recognises 6 religions, the largest of which is various forms of Islam making up 87% of the population. The rest is a combination of Protestantism, Catholicism, Hindu, Buddhism and Confucianism. Atheism and agnosticism are not recognised and it is illegal to blaspheme against any religion. The anti-blasphemy law states that person may receive up to 5 years in prison if they are found to be:

“…deliberately, in public, which in essence sparked hostility, insulting or abusive views towards religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion based on God.”

The nation has as part of its prime directive the notion that there is, with certainty, one God, and whatever guise you deem to worship this god in, it is tolerated. Indonesia backs freedom of religion, and in most cases it can be quite tolerant of another person’s religion. It has a strong interfaith culture, and promotes dialogue between the different faiths.

But not so if you are atheist or agnostic. According the the law, it is illegal to voice your opinions if that opinion is that there is no god. So in this case, freedom OF religion does not equal freedom FROM religion.

I read a report in The Telegraph yesterday that a man who posted the words “God does not exist”, on his FaceBook page was badly beaten by an angry mob which included co-workers and persons unknown to him. The man, a lapsed Muslim, was then delivered to the police by the mob, who placed him in protective custody awaiting charges.

This is perplexing, and not unlike the intolerance recently seen in The Maldives over a similar problem, where a man was found hanged after admitting to his colleagues that he was an atheist. Indonesia differs from The Maldives in that it’s not illegal to be anything other than Muslim, but it seems that while they are tolerant of other religions, those with no religion are left out in the cold, and in some cases are subjected to religious violence like in the case we see here. Religious violence, coming from an idea that prides itself on its peaceful aspects, is becoming more publicised in the media. Is this because it’s on the increase, or because we want to hear about it? Is it something else again, like a pop-cultural Islamophobia? It’s difficult to say, but one might point out that it’s rare, if almost unknown, that a person is beaten up by a mob of angry atheists for their belief in God.

Islamophobia aside, can we say that it is justifiable, by any ruling government, so stifle people’s freedom of speech when it comes to religion? Is religion to be given a special place above an scrutiny that all other parts of civilisation are denied? Add to that, is it possible that religious belief is so fragile, and held onto so tenuously that the mere words of disbelief are enough to threaten it? Apparently so, and this points to something quite telling about the nature of belief, and it’s tendency to keep the followers under-thumb and ignorant of outside ideas.

Indonesia is actually quite lenient with its anti- blasphemy laws, with the maximum penalty being jail-time, as opposed to execution being the maximum penalty in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I suppose this makes more progressive than its Islamic cousins, but it’s still a long way from the standards that we enjoy in the western world.

It comes down to the nature of Islam, which states that unbelievers are to be killed, and that Islam is to be the only religion:

“[2.191] And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.
[2.192] But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
[2.193] And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.” – The Cow

Some interpret this passage differently than the words appear, but the words do appear thus, and interpretation is clear to my mind what it means. I know this is cherrypicking, and some would claim it’s take out of context, but these are the words in the book, and these words are filtered down to the believers who interpret them for themselves. What would you think is the right thing to do if these were the words fed to you from your religious book? But I digress.

So what is at stake here? The freedom of a man expressing himself has been taken, he has been subjected to beatings and ridicule, and is liable to loose his livelihood. In some ways, compared to what could happen in other fiercely religious nations, he has been fortunate enough to be delivered to the police. But it still stands that this man, for a simple posting on his FaceBook page, now faces jail-time for his actions. While I have no illusions that anything will change in Indonesia soon, I think that the case of Indonesia and The Maldives show us that by contrast, Australia, The USA and Europe have a very tolerant and just society for non-believers, and we should be mindful of this fact. Taken for granted and our freedoms and rights could be stripped away from us right from under our noses.

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