In Gus Dur’s Drive for Religious Plurality, A Litmus Test for Constitutional Defense

Surabaya, Indonesia - Maintaining a low-profile due to recent ill-health, Indonesia’s spiritual and moral mentor Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid has made a comeback with a judicial review at the Constitutional Court. Long known for championing the underdog, the former president has petitioned the court to overturn a 1965 presidential decree that recognizes only six religions as “official” and criminalizes heresy within them.

Backed by a number of NGOs, the petition argues that in sanctioning only six faiths the decree violates the concept of religious freedom as guaranteed by Article 29 of the Constitution and discriminates against other faiths. By all criteria, this argument is valid as the article specifically allows all Indonesian citizens to adhere to and practice any faith according to their conscience.

The selective recognition by the state of a handful of faiths is in itself a betrayal of the Constitution, not to mention a grave error in mixing religion and politics, from which many of our political woes stem. As things stand on the religious front, the Indonesian Republic is no different from the old Roman Republic in which any faith apart from the “state cults” was deemed to be “atheistic.”

Considering the branding of Gus Dur as an “atheist” by Hasyim Muzadi, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairman, the etymological history of the word is interesting to note. The first Christians were also seen as “atheists” by the majority pagans at the time because the former repudiated the old gods. Some Roman emperors even went as far as persecuting Christians.

Even the first Muslims were seen by the majority of Arabs as “atheists” for their rejection of the old Arabian deities.

Therefore it is surprising that Christianity, initially seen as religious aberrancy by the Romans, in the end became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Islamic faith, bitterly opposed by Mecca’s leading Quraysh tribe at first, also became the normative faith of the Arab nation. So atheism, in this sense, is a peculiar religious stance disapproved of by the established religions at any given time in history. Within this context, the petition sponsored by Gus Dur must represent a threat to the established order.

There is no doubt that the 1965 decree was dear to the status quo and the Islamic parties at the time. There is evidence that in proclaiming the decree, former President Sukarno was bowing to pressure by Islamic parties due to the existence of numerous “mystical sects” throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

The decree would have also received support from the then powerful communist party PKI whose doctrines mocked mystic faiths as superstitions.

Some of these old Javanese religions appropriated some Islamic ideas, making them even more abhorrent to mainstream Islamic clerics who viewed the forming of hybrid religions as an act of desecration.

Today the stigma continues as the tradition of mixing religion and politics flourishes. Post-Suharto Indonesia has seen the rise of political parties based on religions, and the thirst of religious leaders to become lords temporal as well as spiritual.

Intriguingly, the cleric who branded Gus Dur an atheist is known for his ambitious, though failed, forays into politics. Hasyim’s claim that our police force would be busy arresting false prophets if the decree were annulled is either intended to mislead the public or outlandish naivete. Without the decree, the police would indeed have no legal basis to arrest any aspiring prophet.

Seen in this light, the anxiety the petition has caused is perhaps understandable. The dismantling of the 1965 decree would become the cornerstone of the separation between state and religion, paving the way for a true secular and civil society. This, in turn, would also decimate and, perhaps desecrate, the chance for ambitious religious leaders to run for political office.

Moreover, throughout history, the decree has been implemented discriminatively and selectively, as if only to appease hard-line Muslim groups. The recent persecution of the Ahmadiyah sect is all too fresh and vivid to be forgotten. Scenes of real desecration of their places of worship have prompted the question who the real desecrator is: Ahmadiyah the heretical or the mainstream yet brutal masses who claim to be orthodox believers.

And if heresy within any recognized state cult in Indonesia is truly forbidden, what of the Catholic and Protestant churches? Both, though now less vociferously than in the past, claim that each is the “True Church” while the other is heretical. Jehovah’s Witnesses are listed by the Protestant church as “heretical” but the Indonesian government only banned them in the 1980s, when Suharto discovered that the sect taught its followers that nationalism was sinful and forbade them to salute the national flag.

Undoubtedly the 1965 law, akin to the circumstances of its birth, has always been a political instrument for the state to interfere with religious liberties or to satisfy the righteous anger of certain religious groups.

Ironically, Indonesia’s religious minorities, though forever lamenting being discriminated against in a predominantly Muslim country, would appear to be far from being shy about using the law if they could.

When Gus Dur became president, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were, albeit unofficially, allowed back into the mainstream. This resulted in cries of complaint from many Protestant groups who felt that the heretical sect should remain banned.

Amid such pandemonium of complex issues, the official reasoning by the state is that the law is there to minimize potential clashes between competing sects within one religion, often at the expense of the minority sect. So, instead of upholding religious freedom as espoused by the Constitution, the state is in fact championing the law of the jungle and rule of the mob.

What is different from the both the Old and New Order eras, however, is that Indonesia now has a Constitutional Court whose chief duty is to uphold the Constitution.

Abdurrahman Wahid seems to be intent on putting the court to the test. Will it defend the Constitution despite, admittedly, a climate unfavorable to the annulment of the 1965 presidential decree?

Will this avant-garde petition by an equally pioneering statesman finally find refuge in what is the latest offspring of our constitution, or will it flounder in the face of ambition and bigotry?

May our constitutional magistrates realize they are standing at the bar of history, able to make a huge leap into the future or regress into the past.