The Absence of Secularism and The Future of Freedom in Indonesia

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Civil liberties still face serious threats in Indonesia. Threats have grown strongly in the last four years, resulting in the deterioration of Indonesia’s ranking in the Freedom House record, from the “free country” occupied by Indonesia during the 2006 – 2013 period to the “partly free country” since 2014 until now. However, the heat of political tension—which has continued since the campaign for presidential elections 2014 to one year to the end of the first period of Joko Widodo’s administration—has in fact reinforced both social intolerance and government restrictions at the expense of civil liberties.

While it is expected that the situation will heat up ahead of the 2019 presidential election, it is not impossible that it will further distort the civil liberties situation in Indonesia in the future. Given violations of civil liberties threaten the lives of all Indonesian citizens in general, it is undeniable that these violations are experienced most often by those belonging to minorities, especially religious minorities and LGBTs. Whether the political situation is heating up or not, in reality, religious minorities—such as Ahmadis, Shiites, Christians, Atheists—and LGBTs in Indonesia have been the victims of continuous civil liberties violations over the exercise of their right to freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression in the public sphere.

Such violations take many forms both in the real world and in the cyberspace, from intolerance to discrimination, from persecution to criminalization. While the violations were committed both by fellow citizens and state apparatus acting on behalf of various laws and policies, the victims were not just ordinary citizens, but even a governor of the Capital City of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, who was found guilty by the court on charges of blasphemy.

The analysis of the various cases of civil liberties violations in Indonesia shows that the root of the problem is not solely the lack of knowledge or information on civil rights, which is however relatively easier to resolve in the current Internet era. More fundamentally, the violation of civil liberties in Indonesia is driven by a very strong ideological prejudice suspecting individual freedom as eroding social harmony.  While this ideological prejudice is found both in the daily life of society and the administration of the state, it is not uncommon for civil rights violations to be committed not only by ordinary citizens in the form of intolerance and persecution, but also by the state apparatus in the form of criminalization of the exercise of civil liberties in the name of law.

In fact, adding to the blasphemy laws created in the era of Soekarno, the government and parliament repeatedly issued laws that increasingly restricted individual freedoms such as the Electronic Information and Transaction Act (UU ITE 2008) and, recently, the Community Organization Act (UU Ormas 2018).

Religion, especially Islam, is the most powerful social institution preserving ideological suspicions on freedom in the daily life of a religiously-known Indonesian society. Moreover, the strong influence of Islam in politics and state governance, which implies the unfinished secularization in Indonesia, creates so many laws and policies criminalizing many individuals in the exercise of their civil rights. This tendency is more pronounced in case of blasphemy alleged to Ahok, for example. This case has driven hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Muslims demonstrated repeatedly to sue Ahok to be punished for insulting Islam. The sequel is what is known as the “Ahok’s effect” that has been rolling hard since Ahok was imprisoned, marked by the rise of persecution in the real world and social media, and often ends with the imprisonment of people who are considered heretical or insulting Islam.

One can say that this is a matter of political tension that is heating up, and it is certainly true that the political dynamics that trigger the rise of political Islam. However, the real problem faced is the illiberal attitudes conserved mainly by religion, which gives too much spaces for religion to interfere in public affairs. A free society clearly needs a mindset that respects freedom and its virtues, whereas the absence of secularism is one of the greatest obstacles to realizing a freer society in Indonesia.

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