NOVEMBER 30 — When Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo announced just days after the new Cabinet was sworn in that people would have the option of leaving the religion column blank in their state-issued identity cards, the knee-jerk reactions against it forced him to clarify, or, rather soften his remark.

Having said that stating one’s religion is “a matter of privacy”, he later qualified his statement by saying that the option only applied to followers of religions that are not formally recognised by the state. Followers of the six formally recognised religions – Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism – must continue to state their religions in the cards, he said.

Granted, he was avoiding controversies so early in his term, but this would’ve been a great opportunity to delete the religion column all together from the state ID card, thus addressing a host of issues that has led to decades of discriminations and violence.

Tjahjo’s initial statement is still the most politically progressive of any Indonesian government officials in terms of religious relations, since the late president Abdurrahman Wahid moved to recognise Confucianism some 13 years ago. In the same year he made Chinese New Year a holiday, effectively lifting an over three-decade-long ban on its celebration.File picture shows Indonesian Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo (far left) during the official inauguration by new Indonesian President Joko Widodo (not in picture) at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on October 27, 2014. — AFP pic
File picture shows Indonesian Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo (far left) during the official inauguration by new Indonesian President Joko Widodo (not in picture) at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on October 27, 2014. — AFP pic

On paper, recent laws and regulations already allow followers of minority and indigenous religions such as Sunda Wiwitan, the native faith of the Sundanese, and Kejawen, the native faith of the Javanese, to leave the religion column blank in their ID cards.

However, in practice, members of religious minority groups have to identify themselves as observers of state-recognized religions, or they would not be issued the cards, effectively denying them public and social services.

Prominent civil society figures and human rights activists agree that deleting the religion column all together is a step forward to preventing religious violence in the country, including those perpetrated against minority communities like the Ahmadis and the Shiites.

In sectarian conflicts like in Poso, Central Sulawesi, and Ambon, Maluku, in 2000-2005 being caught withthe wrong ID Card in the wrong place means losing one’s life, a fact I personally experienced. As a journalist traveling through the sectarian conflicts in Poso many years ago, I never brought bring my ID card with me for safety reasons, as I passed both the warring Muslim and Christian areas.

According to Amnesty International, despite some positive human rights development in Indonesia since the 1998 reforms, freedom of religion remains severely restricted, owing to the 1965 Blasphemy Law and the 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transaction.

Both of these laws are often used to target individuals who belong to minority religions, faiths and opinions, and particularly those who adhere to interpretations of Islam that deviate from the mainstream form of Islam in Indonesia, according to its recently launched report “Prosecuting Beliefs: Indonesia’s Blasphemy Laws.”

Most widely persecuted are the Ahmadi followers, who despite identifying themselves as Muslims, are declared as deviant, even non-Muslims by other Muslim groups.

In the 10 years of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration, criminalisation of individuals for blasphemy was done to curb freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The organization documented at least 106 people imprisoned under the law since 2004, some up to five years’ imprisonment and most of are of minority religious beliefs.

One of the recent high profile individual cases involved a former civil servant in Sumatra who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment after posting “God does not exist” in his Facebook page. His formal charge was giving false information by claiming he was a Muslim in his identity card.

In the same period, Amnesty International has also recorded increasing levels of harassment, intimidation and attacks against religious minorities, fuelled by discriminatory laws and regulations at the national and local levels. They include attacks on places of worship and homes by mobs, in some cases resulting in the forced eviction of communities from their homes into temporary shelters and accommodation. The police often turned a blind eye.

Tjahjo’s seeming backtrack from the original plan to reduce government’s involvement in individual religious observance followed some protests by politicians from Muslim-based parties and conservative Islamic groups that accused the plan as being against Indonesia’s ideology and feared it would lead to secularization of the country. Pancasila, the five principles adopted as the national ideology, stipulates that every citizen believes in the existence of one God.

But religion was actually made compulsory in the state ID cards sometimes in the mid 1960s, in the aftermath of the 1965 aborted communist coup in Indonesia that brought the late President Suharto to power. Fears over the rise of communism led to a ban on atheism, and the eventual state recognition of only five religions. In addition, ethnic Chinese Indonesians were not allowed to practice their own faith, particularly Confucianism, and must change their Chinese names, a move that would only be reversed over 30 years later.

President Joko Widodo’s decision to retain Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, who was installed by Yudhoyono in June to replace Suryadharma Ali after the latter was named a graft suspect, was hailed as a step towards improving the government’s treatment of the minority religions in the country.

In his short tenure, Lukman has expressed his intention to reach out to the minority religious groups most vulnerable to discrimination and shown his firm stance on religious militancy.

The Jokowi administration now has a chance to alter the course of religious dynamics in Indonesia by cutting back the government’s involvement in individual religious affairs. Many are counting on him to make sure he doesn’t back down on his own commitment.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.