Weeks after an openly-proclaimed atheist was sent to prison by a court in West Sumatra, a senior chief justice says that atheists and communists do have a place in the country.
Constitutional Court chief Mahfud MD told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Indonesian Constitution gave people the freedom to be atheists or communists as it guaranteed equality in freedom.
Mahfud was answering Merkel’s questions about freedom of religion and democracy in Indonesia during a visit to the Constitutional Court on Tuesday evening.
“Since its inception, the Constitutional Court has guaranteed the freedom of atheists and communists in this country, as long as they do not interfere with the freedom of people of other religions. Freedom is equality,” Mahfud said, as quoted by kompas.com.
The nation would be denying human rights and democracy if it denied atheists and communists their rights, Mahfud said. He, however, said atheists and communists should also respect people who chose to have a religion.
The chief justice’s comments came only weeks after Alexander Aan, 32, was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail by the Negeri Muaro District Court in West Sumatra in June for blasphemy and publicly declaring himself an atheist.
The panel of judges declared him guilty of defaming Islam and insulting the Prophet Muhammad through his Facebook account and a fan page titled Ateis Minang (Minang Atheist).
According to the judges, Alexander’s actions violated Article 28 of Law No. 11/2008 on Information and Electronic Transactions because he had spread information that had caused hatred and enmity against individuals and groups based on tribal affiliations, religion, race and societal groups (SARA).
The judge also mentioned Alexander’s open declaration that he was an atheist, which could be read by many people as unacceptable behavior for a citizen and civil servant under the state ideology of Pancasila and the Constitution, which obliges every citizen to have a religion.
Alex, who acknowledged Islam as his religion on his identity card, said that he was an atheist of Minang descent from Padang, West Sumatra, which is a Muslim stronghold.
Mahfud’s statement has won support from prominent religious figures. Abdul Mu’ti, secretary of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Muslim organization, said on Wednesday that even though Indonesia did not acknowledge atheism, it was tied to international covenants on human rights and religious freedom.
“The first tenet of state ideology Pancasila [five pillars] states ‘Belief in the one and only God’, meaning that the state gives freedom for people to choose their religion, not freedom for people not to have a religion.
“However, Indonesia, as it is tied to international covenants on religious freedom and human rights, is obliged to protect all citizens practicing their ideology and faith, regardless what that religion or ideology is,” Abdul told The Jakarta Post.
Separately, Muslim scholar Komaruddin Hidayat said that as long as it was practiced individually, every citizen had the right to practice any religion or ideology they believed in.
“It becomes a problem when their individual expression is against the constitution and ethics,” the rector of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University said.
Abdul realized the sensitivity of the issue, saying that it could potentially trigger public furor once it was publicly discussed. He cited the debate over the Ahmadiyah sect as an obvious example.
“Most Muslims deem Ahmadiyah as deviant, as a result, Ahmadis are repressed by the public. It becomes legally convoluted,” he said, adding that “the state has to be wise in facing such issues.”
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