Young men joining the protest march against Jakarta's former Governor Ahok in December 2016. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Young men partake in the protest march against Jakarta’s former Governor, Ahok, in December 2016 (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

In a “milestone” ruling, Indonesia’s High Court on Tuesday (7 November) said all religious groups should be treated equally before the law in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and that failing to do so would be “unconstitutional”.

A law adopted in 2013 requires Indonesian citizens to declare their religious affiliation to access benefits and the justice system, and obtain licenses and certificates. While the religion column on identity cards allows for Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians, and, in principle, can be left blank, in practice this has led to difficulties in accessing benefits and services for members of other religious groups.

The judges unanimously held that this “contradicted the Constitution”, as Benar News reported.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos from the Setara Institute hailed the decision as “an important milestone for the elimination of discrimination based on religion and belief”.

Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo described the ruling as “binding” and said it would “be adopted immediately by 514 regencies and cities”. In a statement, he added: “The ministry will coordinate with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Education to obtain data on followers of faiths in Indonesia.”

Increasing radicalisation

The ruling comes at a time when religious freedom in Indonesia, long celebrated for its religious tolerance, has seen increasing radicalisation among its young people.

AsiaNews reports that a recent survey of 4,000 high school and university students showed that nearly 20 per cent of them would “support the establishment of a [Muslim] caliphate over the current secular government” and that one in four was willing to fight to achieve this.

Paul Marshall, Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, in a September article, warned of the influence of Islamist groups in the country, criticising Saudi Arabia for offering “a well-funded network of schools, scholarships, imams, and mosques that try to replace local interpretations of Islam, which have usually encouraged democracy and peaceful relations between religions, with Saudi Wahhabism”.

The radicalisation of Indonesian youths was highlighted during the blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s former Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”), a Christian and ethnic Chinese, earlier this year.

He was charged with blasphemy in September 2016 after accusing his political opponents of using Qur’anic verses to stop Muslims from voting for him in his bid for re-election as Jakarta’s governor. Extremist Islamic movements used his trial to organise mass protest marches.


After Ahok was jailed for two years, the UN called on the Indonesian government to repeal its blasphemy laws, which, the UN said, “undermined” religious freedom. UN officials said that “instead of speaking out against hate speech by the leaders of the protests, the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination”.

In his inaugural speech in early October, Jakarta’s new Muslim governor, Anies Rawiyd Baswedan, was accused of using “divisive” language when he said: “All of us natives have been oppressed, pushed aside. Now is the time for us to become the masters in the country of Indonesia.”

In a letter to Baswedan, Human Rights Watch urged him to “use the powers at your disposal to defend the rights of Jakarta’s religious minorities, including its Shia, Ahmadiyah, and Christian communities from hate crimes and discrimination”.

Ahok, during his trial, said that he had been the target of racist and religious attacks since he was elected to public office in 2005. There have also been ongoing concerns about a number of churches being closed in Indonesia.