Indonesia is Neither an Islamic nor a Secular State

I recently came across a discussion of alcohol regulations in Indonesia, housed on a site that apparently caters to Indonesia’s expat community. (Westerners have something of an infatuation with restrictions on alcohol as a measure of how religiously tolerant Muslim societies are. This is true even though it is still far easier to purchase beer in Jakarta than it is in my home town in central Pennsylvania.)

What struck me was not the discussion of alcohol—old hat—but rather an instructive error in the very first sentence.

Indonesia, being a Muslim majority country, is also a pluralist, democratic and secular nation.

The error is in the word “secular.” Indonesia is not an Islamic state, but it is also not a secular state and it never has been. Misunderstand this, and you misunderstand Indonesian politics and religion.

The Indonesian constitution (PDF) declared in Chapter XI that

(1) The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God.
(2) The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief

(1) is the key, establishing the founding principle that the state is religious, from which follows the conclusion that the state has legitimate role in regulating religious practice and religious affairs. Chapter X also stipulates that

In exercising his/her rights and freedoms, every person shall have the duty to accept the restrictions established by law for the sole purposes of guaranteeing the recognition and respect of the rights and freedoms of others and of satisfying just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security and public order in a democratic society.

This provision clarifies that the protection of religious values may serve as the basis for lawmaking. Note that this is not a reasoned argument on legal grounds about where the rights of one infringe on the rights of others, this is a constitutional provision that asserts that such laws are permissible.

From these and a few other provisions, many interesting things follow that have no place in a secular state. There are religious courts. There is a Ministry of Religions that regulates religions, not just Islam but others as well. The Indonesian state has the constitutional architecture necessary for state actors to take a position on what religious beliefs and practices are normatively acceptable, which ones are deviant, and which ones are a threat to social order. The argument that the sale and consumption of alcohol inflicts harm on Indonesian Muslims even if they do not consume it themselves is an entirely coherent position (even if I don’t agree with it at all).

The politics in Indonesian Islam is not about defending the state from Islam. It is about positioning Islam within a state apparatus that can and does regulate it and other religions. Secular states solve these problems by preventing the state from taking a position on religion. For better or for worse, that is not the path that Indonesia’s elites chose at independence.

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