Yogyakarta, Indonesia – As I reported previously in Providence, on November 7, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court unanimously held as unconstitutional the legal requirement that Indonesians can identify only as either Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian on their national identification cards. The case concerned the religious status of the loran kepercayaan—“tribal religions”—who had not previously been regarded as real religions but as “cultural belief systems.” According to the Education and Culture Ministry, in Indonesia there are about 1,200 such groups with a total of at least 12 million followers.

The Court held that loran kepercayaan must be treated equally and recommended that identity cards include a seventh category, “Believers of the Faith.” This was a major advance in religious freedom in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But, while religious freedom advocates, major Muslim organizations, and Christian and other minority religious groups have welcomed the decision, there are troubling dissenting voices.

On November 22, Sirajuddin “Din” Syamsuddin, the head of the influential Indonesian Ulama Council’s (MUI) advisory council declared on behalf of the advisory council that “[n]ative faiths cannot be on an equal basis with religions… It is clear from the 1965 presidential regulation that our nation only recognizes six religions. Aside from those six, others are not acknowledged, although they may exist.” The MUI argued that there must be differential recognition since native beliefs cannot enjoy the same status as real religions.

On November 29, 2017, the MUI itself stated that the court’s decision “hurts the feelings of the faithful, especially Indonesian Muslims” because it places indigenous faiths at the same level as religion. It recommended that aliran kepercayaan instead be given unique ID cards so that they could list their faith without necessarily implying any official state recognition that they were in fact a religion.

Earlier, on November 9, MUI law commission member Anton Tabah Digdoyo had even said that recognizing indigenous faiths would be a major step backward for Indonesia, signaling “the country’s regression into the stone age, animism-dynamism will flourish again in Indonesia in the era of advanced science.”

Compounding these problems is that MUI spokesman Din Syamsuddin is very influential in his own right since he is a former chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s, and the world’s, second-largest Muslim organization. In July of this year, he made headlines by saying that the Muslim idea of the caliphate was similar to the status of the Vatican, a statement that drew sharp responses by Catholics and others. Despite this, in October, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo appointed him as a special envoy for religious harmony, saying that he would encourage interreligious dialog and joint works.

But beyond Din’s and Anton’s statements lies the ambiguous status of the MUI itself. It was founded in 1975 under the late dictator Suharto to provide advice on matters important to the Muslim community, and its status has varied over the years. A key moment was on July 26, 2005, when in a speech to the MUI National Congress, then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang (SBY), seeking to consolidate his support among Muslims, said “we want the MUI to play a central role with regard to Islamic doctrine…and for matters in which the government or the state should listen to the fatwa from the MUI.” Since then there has been confusion about the exact status of the group’s declarations and, in one instance, President Jokowi has had to warn the police that MUI fatwas are not the same as government law or policy and that the security forces have no authority to enforce MUI fatwas.

Jokowi should continue to press this stance and make clearer that while the MUI has every right to issue its opinions, it does not speak for the government nor make laws for this diverse and multi-religious country.

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: Sirajuddin “Din” Syamsuddin (front, far right) at the 4th World Peace Forum in Bogor, Indonesia. November 2012. Via Prof. DR. M. Din Syamsuddin’s website.