Religious Regulation in Indonesia and Malaysia

Several weeks ago the Monkey Cage published an essay by Daniel Philpott on religious freedom in Muslim majority countries. The essay makes two important points: (1) that many Muslim majority countries are open to multiple faiths, and (2) that religious unfreedom in Muslim countries need not be Islamist in origin, it can be secular in origin. Along the way, however, Philpott’s essay makes the following point about “patterns of repression” of religious freedom in the Muslim world.

The Islamist pattern represents those Muslim-majority states that deny religious freedom by using the state’s laws, policies and coercive power to promote and enforce a highly restrictive and traditional form of sharia, or Islamic law, in all areas of life – economy, culture, religious practice, education, family life, dress and many others. Such states include Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council members, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and the Sudan, but also (beyond the Middle East) Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria. Iran and Saudi Arabia arguably deserve the status of standard-bearers due to how widely they are emulated and how actively they seek to spread their version of Islam.

Including Indonesia and Malaysia alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia is striking. I’ve shared this with scholars of Islam and politics, both those with backgrounds in Southeast Asia and those without such backgrounds, and the reaction—uniformly—is that this is incorrect. I share this evaluation. Under no definition of the term “Islamist” does it make sense to code Malaysia and Indonesia as Islamist, or to conclude that these are states use “laws, policies and coercive power to promote and enforce a highly restrictive and traditional form of sharia…in all areas of life.”

I asked Philpott via email about his decision to code Indonesia and Malaysia this way, and he generously shared his thoughts. He relies on a 2009 report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life to code Indonesia and Malaysia as having high official restrictions on religion. While that report unfortunately gives us no real explanation of these coding choices, I don’t disagree with that whatsoever. My disagreement lies in how we understand the source of that unfreedom.

Here is the key conceptual point. Philpott’s coding scheme considers the oppose of secular to be Islamist. Since neither Indonesia nor Malaysia is a secular state—the constitution of each invokes religion explicitly—the only alternative must be Islamist. I consider there to be many alternatives to secular repression of religion. One variety is Islamist. Another is nationalist. Still another is what we might call “official religionist.” However we term it, Islamist won’t do for Indonesia and Malaysia.

Indonesia is an easy case to make. There was a point when Indonesians debated explicitly invoking sharia law in the Indonesian constitution under the so-called Jakarta charter. But that proposal failed (see Elson 2009 for a recent discussion of the Jakarta Charter and its implications). Since then, the Indonesian constitution has recognized an all-powerful “God”—deliberately translated as Tuhan rather than Allah—under the state ideology of Pancasila. This formulation explicitly and repeatedly rejects the supremacy of Islam over other religions (see this official 1978 explication).

How, then, is religion regulated in Indonesia? Through restrictions on what counts as faith. Under the New Order, there were five recognized faiths: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Since democratization Confucianism has joined this. There is no space for, say, Judaism. There is also heavy regulation of “non-standard” forms of Islam. This means that so-called deviationist Islamic groups such as the Ahmadiyah run afoul of the official conceptualization of Islam (and interestingly, if Ahmadis where not to insist that they are Muslims, they might not face many restrictions at all). But there is also comparable regulation of non-Muslim faiths. Indeed, you can go to the Ministry of Religion in Indonesia and learn about the Directorate-General of Catholic affairs, Buddhist affairs, and so forth. Under Indonesian law, these bodies are responsible for all manner of norms, standards, and procedures for the organization and functioning of other officially recognized faiths. Critically, these are not Muslims regulating Christians, for Islamist ends; these are Christians regulating Christians, for nationalist ends.

The case of Malaysia is more complicated, yet more interesting. Malaysia is an Islamic state, as I argued here. But it is not an Islamist state. The key distinction is the complete irrelevance of Islamic law for non-Muslims, and the parallel operation of civil and sharia courts for Muslims. Make no mistake: Islam does have constitutional status in Malaysia. But Islam is neither the sole source of legal authority in Malaysia, nor the final arbiter of debates about the propriety of various forms of social or religious regulation. It is the constitution (specifically, Article 3) that establishes Islam at the state religion of Malaysia; the very next article establishes that the Federal Constitution is the “supreme law” of Malaysia. This is entirely different from a Saudi-type model in which Islam is the ultimate source of legal and constitutional authority.

Once one understand these points, then we can understand why Philpott’s coding of Indonesia and Malaysia causes such surprise. And what’s more, the fact that the Indonesian and Malaysian states neither promote nor enforce any type of conservative interpretation of sharia in all aspects of daily life—even among Muslims in the Islamic state of Malaysia—is no longer puzzling or surprising, it is natural.

To be very clear, there are many strict Islamists in both countries who wish to enforce a conservative interpretation of Islam in all aspects of daily life. And it is true that Islam is regulated officially in both countries, by Muslims with a normative conception of what Islam means. Yet it is also true that even in Malaysia, there is nothing approaching the level of all-encompassing regulation that one finds in Saudi Arabia or Iran. This is a difference of kind, not one of degree. The single most important observation to make here is that even in the Islamic state of Malaysia, it is an opposition party that is pushing to implement hudud, and even then only in one state in the northeast. And so far this has failed, because it contradicts the Federal Constitution!

It is important to understand the various sources of religious unfreedom in Muslim-majority states, and Philpott’s essay is a critical first step in that direction. Yet we must not ignore how the regulation of religious practice and belief varies. The Indonesian and Malaysian cases are key counterexamples to the assumption that religious regulation is the same as Islamist regulation. These cases must be central to any analysis of the phenomenon of religious freedom across the Muslim world.

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