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Commentary: Is there room
for atheists in Indonesia?

Endy Bayuni

The Jakarta Post/Jakarta

Atheists in Indonesia will have to stay underground for now and probably for the foreseeable future.

Even with the rapid development of social media that allows those who don’t believe in the existence of God to get connected and discuss their beliefs more openly, there is no guarantee that they would be safe from the wrath of radical religious groups, or even from the long arm of the state if they come out of the closet.

A court in West Sumatra last week sent Alexander Aan, a 30-year- old civil servant and a self-confessed atheist, to two-and-half years in jail. He was not convicted under the country’s blasphemy law, although it was one of the two charges brought against him.

Instead, he was found guilty of violating the 2008 cyber crimes law. His crime was spreading his atheist beliefs through his Facebook accounts, “Ateis Minang” and “Alex Aan”, which the court said incited hatred and animosity against religious groups. In one posting, which was used as evidence in court against him, he professed “God does not exist”.

Aan is probably better off, and safer, inside. A local radical Islamic group has been anxious to get its hands on him, again. Before his arrest in February, he was dragged and beaten once the group was able to locate his whereabouts, a remote little town about four-hour drive from the West Sumatra capital of Padang. With his full name and photo posted on his Facebook accounts, it didn’t take long for anyone to find him. While the assailants walked free, Aan now has to serve time in jail.

By regarding the case as a cybercrime, the court failed to address the one constitutional dilemma about the presence of atheists in the country. Do they have the right to exist in this country, and more importantly, if they are considered as being outside the constitution, can they expect state protections just as all other citizens

Technically, if we go by the letter of the Constitution, there is no room for atheists in Indonesia.

Given the first of five principles of Pancasila, the state ideology inscribed in the Preamble to the Constitution, is “Believe in the One Supreme God”. Article 28 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religions, but it is open to interpretation — whether or not this also means the freedom not to believe in any religion or even in the existence of God.

A lower law, a government regulation, further narrows down the choices for citizens by stating that only six religions — Islam, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism — are recognized by the state.

Given the current political atmosphere whereby many minority religious groups are feeling the heat from radical Islamic groups, the case for atheism will probably have to take a back seat. Messages of support have poured in for Aan in the social media since his case came to light, an indication that atheism has a large number of followers in this country, but most of the senders had been careful in not disclosing their real identity.

Outside social media, Aan’s case did not generate that much interest at home, including among most of the country’s major news outlets. Many had missed the story completely; others made a small mention of the case.

Even local human rights organizations, which had been vocal in defending the freedom of religious minorities, have largely remained silent throughout Aan’s case. Aan was lucky to have the assistance of a small band of lawyers working largely on a probono basis in defending him in court.

In contrast, Aan’s story attracted far larger coverage from the foreign media, such as CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, The New York Times and many others that had followed the story from the time of his arrest to last week’s verdict.

Indonesia’s record on freedom of religion has come under international scrutiny in the past year following a series of attacks by radical Islamic groups against religious minorities. At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, Indonesia had to answer questions from other governments about the treatment of some religious minorities and the lack of protection from the state. The story of Aan gives skeptics, at home and abroad; one more reason to doubt Indonesia’s claim to religious tolerance.

The largely dismissive public and official attitude towards Aan’s case is another sad reflection of the way the nation treats as impertinent a constitutional question such as religious freedom. We have seen this attitude prevailing in regard to recent cases of persecutions against followers of the Ahmadiyah and Shiites, and the increasing harassments against Christians who are deprived of their right to build places of worship. The Ahmadis, the Shiites and the Christians literally have to fight their own battles in the face of the increasingly indifferent Muslims. Aan himself is almost alone in fighting for his rights as a citizen of this country.

Aan, to his tribute, had started what seemed to be a healthy public discourse by engaging his critics in the Facebook to debate the existence of God. While defending his beliefs, he had challenged those who begged to differ from him to prove the Deity’s existence.

His jailing has not only violated the freedom of speech, but it has also killed freedom of inquiry, which is important in all religions and also for any nation to make any progress.

In addition to Aan’s loss, the nation loses much more by missing out on an opportunity to address important questions about their own beliefs and about the presence of atheists in the country, questions that need to be addressed, sooner or later.

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