JAKARTA, Indonesia – Growing up on the Indonesian island of Java in the 1970s, Dewi Kanti practiced an ancient form of indigenous traditional beliefs whose origins predate the arrival of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam here from several centuries.
Ironically, notes Ms. Dewi bitterly, these traditional beliefs make her a religious pariah in her own country today, where the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the government only recognizes six: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Confucianism.
“The point here is that there is no justice,” she said. “Why can these great world religions spread and be recognized, but not the original religion of Indonesia?”
It’s a question she and others are still waiting to see answered, despite a landmark November Constitutional Court ruling that affirmed the rights of followers of traditional beliefs outside of the six recognized religions.
The decision came amid signs of growing intolerance from religious minorities in Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and objections from some Islamic groups.
Five months later, the Indonesian government has yet to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision, although officials say they are working on it.
In a country where religion plays a large role in public life, followers of traditional beliefs, commonly known as aliran kepercayaan, hope the ruling will finally end decades of unofficial discrimination that prevents them from obtain permits to open gathering places, obtain marriage licenses and gain access to public services such as health care and education. It also complicates the efforts of these believers to obtain jobs in the military, police or civil service, or even funeral plots in cemeteries.
There are hundreds of different forms of aliran kepercayaan spread across the vast Indonesian archipelago. In Java, the most populated island, it is often a mixture of animist, Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic beliefs.
Forms of kepercayaan can include certain periodic religious observances, such as communal meals or acts that might be compared to Muslim men praying together on Fridays or Christian services on Sundays. These may include ritual offerings to appease the spirits, although practitioners may also be registered as Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists or one of the other recognized religions.
At least 20 million of Indonesia’s 260 million people are estimated to practice local traditional beliefs, but the numbers could be much higher, analysts say, as some are also followers of Islam, Christianity and others major religions.
Religion is so pervasive in Indonesia that citizens are required to declare on their national identity card which of the six approved religions they adhere to, although in some areas they are allowed to leave this section blank. However, this can invite discrimination and bureaucratic hassle, so many traditional believers simply indicate on their identity card the dominant religion in the area where they live. In Java he is likely to be Muslim, but in parts of the islands of Sumatra or Sulawesi he could be Catholic or Protestant, while in Bali he would be Hindu.
But such workarounds should be unnecessary, according to some legal experts.
“The court ruling emphasizes that freedom of belief is a constitutional right, not a right granted by the government,” said Bivitri Susanti, head of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Association of Constitutional Law Teachers.
“Second, it states that the right to believe in Aliran kepercayaan, or religions other than the six government-recognized religions, is inherent in the rights to religion as set forth in Article 29 of the Indonesian Constitution” , she added.
But that view is clouded by the fact that around 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, giving Islamic religious leaders outsized political clout. The Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious body, has been adamant, for example, that traditional beliefs should not be considered equivalent to Islam.
“The decision of the Constitutional Court has not been carefully considered and has hurt the feelings of the faithful, especially Indonesian Muslims, because the decision has put Aliran kepercayaan on an equal footing,” Zainut Tauhid Sa said. ‘adi, Vice Chairman of the Board..
“The decision has legal consequences and an impact on our society,” he said.
Some hardline Islamic groups want to go even further and amend the Constitution to make Islam the official state religion.
However, top leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, support the court’s decision.
Religion has always been a hot topic in Indonesia, which despite its Muslim majority has small but influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. There have been hundreds of religiously motivated attacks against religious minorities in recent years, some resulting in death, as well as forced closures of places of worship and the passing of local bylaws deemed to discriminate against religious minorities.
This tension has also reached the political realm: in May last year, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam in a highly controversial case. which his supporters say was concocted by radical Islamic groups bent on destroying his career.
As such, the Indonesian Interior Ministry appears to be erring on the side of caution with the Constitutional Court’s November ruling.
Arief M. Edie, a spokesman for the ministry, said the government respects and implements the decision – but only by redesigning the national identity card to accommodate Aliran kepercayaan as a choice in the religious status section. . It will not be recognized as the seventh official state religion.
“It’s recognized only as a culture, not as a religion,” Arief said.
This narrow interpretation does not sit well with supporters of Aliran Kepercayaan, who argue that local governments in remote areas of Indonesia will continue to discriminate in the provision of public services.
“The problem with any controversial decision or policy lies in its implementation down to the lowest level of government,” said Johannes Nugroho, an Indonesian political analyst and writer.
Mr Nugroho, a former follower of both Christianity and the kejawen, a traditional belief system, said he tried unsuccessfully to have Christianity removed from the religion section of his national identity card, preferring that it either left blank or, in an attempt to make a statement, changed to Hindu.
He said an employee at his local government office flatly refused, then slyly suggested that if Mr Nugroho recited an Islamic belief to convert to Islam, he would put Muslim on his identity card. Today, he still identifies him as a Christian.
Still, traditional belief organizations say they are emboldened by the Constitutional Court’s decision and see an opening to push for official acceptance.
“We will continue to fight for equality; we have equality, legally speaking, but in reality we don’t,” said Java-based group elder Endang Retno Lastani, whose national identity card is blank in the section on religious affiliation.
“Our belief is the unity of God and people, just like other religions,” he said. “So what’s wrong with that?”