On November 7, 2017, in an unexpected move, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court unanimously held that it was unconstitutional to require that people identify as either Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian on their national identification cards. The Court recommended that a seventh, catch-all category be created—”Believers of the Faith”—for the cards. This is a major advance in religious freedom in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Indonesian law has placed religions within a legal hierarchy. Currently, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and, as of January 2006, Confucianism are recognized as agama, religions, by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The law allows them the right to establish houses of worship, obtain identity cards, and register marriages and births. The tradition has been that, generally, officially recognized religions must believe in God, have a seer/prophet/holy figure, have a message/scripture, have established rituals or liturgy, and are internationally recognized.

Apart from other world religions, in Indonesia there are also many traditional religions, officially called aliran kepercayaan, or cultural belief systems. Since such beliefs may not be recognized, their adherents may face discrimination, and because they often combine their beliefs with one of the recognized religions, their numbers can be hard to estimate. Estimates of the number of practitioners range from 750,000 (Pew Global Futures Project) to 20 million (State Department Religious Freedom Report for 2016). There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan spread throughout the country. Since they are not recognized as fully-fledged or distinct religions, they are not deemed worthy of religious freedom protection.

In the past, adherents of aliran kepercayaan have been pressured to send their children to religious education classes in one of the six recognized religions, and civil servants who follow these beliefs have had difficulty being promoted. Although the Ministry of Home Affairs has declared that members of indigenous religions are entitled to the same access to basic services as others, and that the religion column on identity cards (KTPs) can in principle be left blank, in practice this has led to difficulties in accessing government services, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, education, and public cemeteries, or in private transactions such as insurance and mortgages.

The Constitutional Court ruled only with respect to indigenous religions, several of whom had brought suit challenging the government’s policy, but its logic could be applied to other unrecognized religions, such as Judaism and Sikhism, that have not been officially recognized, though they are allowed to operate. Furthermore, the government might even give them aid.[1]

The major test will be whether the government will extend the court’s ruling to the groups that suffer most from Indonesia’s religious restrictions. These are the aliran sesat, beliefs that are held to be deviant and heretical versions of legally recognized religions. In principle, the restrictions could be applied to deviancy concerning any official religion, but in practice, it applies mainly to beliefs, such as Ahmadiyya and sometimes even Shia, held to be deviations from Islam.[2] Aliran sesat are not accepted as agama. Therefore, they are not protected by law and face governmental restrictions and societal hostilities. They may be barred from building places of worship or propagating their beliefs, and often suffer attacks, sometimes deadly ones, from mobs and vigilantes.

The current Indonesian government has shown itself to be a friend of religious freedom, and President Jokowi frequently makes public appearances in traditional costume to show his support for indigenous cultures. But government officials will move cautiously on matters this sensitive. However, the court has made a major stand, and its effects are likely to be large in years to come.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington DC, and the Leimena Institute, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Photo Credit: President Jokowi in Jakarta on October 20, 2014. By Ahmad Syauki, via Flickr

[1] The Jewish community in Surabaya, whose synagogue was destroyed in riots in 2008, has received support from the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

[2] Atheism is in principle banned on the grounds that it violates Pancasila, though the government does not seek out atheists. There is a group, “Indonesian Atheists,” that claims about 500 members.