• Marjorie Anne Foster

Interfaith in Indonesia

Muhammad Hakim sits across me passionately explaining the need for “true” Islam to be taught and used in order to combat radicalism in Indonesia. He is a 20-year-old Philosophy major from a nearby Islamic college. For him, there is no separation of life and religion. “Freedom is not freedom unless you are submitting to your religious obligations,” he explains to me. Hakim’s view is both shared and challenged by those here in Indonesia.


Indonesia is the land of beliefs. It is actually illegal here to not identify with a religion, it even has to be printed on your ID card. Religious practices rule the land from social norms to political structures. On of these structures is Pancasila. This is the term used to describe the “official foundational philosophical theory of the Indonesian state.” When translated, the term literally means “five principals.” These five points outline how citizens must: (1) Believe in one and only one God, (2) Create a just and civilized humanity, (3) Build a unified Indonesia, (4) Support a democracy “led by wisdom of the representatives of the people,” and, lastly, (5) Fight for social justice for all Indonesians. For this weeks review, I will focus on how the first principal is both beloved and challenged by the college-aged population here in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.


Muslims have their “five principals,” Hinduis have their “four purposes,” Buddhists have their “four noble truths” and Christians have their central beliefs (let me know if you would like a detailed blog about each of these). These are five of the six official religions recognized in Indonesia (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism). Within these, there are inevitable differences in views when it comes to their role in society politically, socially and spiritually.


Eighty-seven percent of Indonesia identifies as Muslim. Here in Java, over 90 percent of the population claims to be Muslim. The streets are filled with covered heads and modest clothing while the murmurs of morning, afternoon and evening prayers serve as a soundtrack over the city. Hakim explains to me how there is a clear divide between right and wrong. For him, it is just wrong to not believe in one God, and only one God, so he thinks Pancasila is perfect the way it is, and it must be taken seriously. This is a common view held by the Islamic majority. But, I wrote earlier that 90 percent of the population “claim” to be Muslim for a reason. Because it is illegal to not live under the belief of one God, many indigenous and ancient traditions have been forced to be secretive or seize to exist. A look at Indonesia’s dark past, including the 1965’s genocide (over 500,000 people killed over their political and religious beliefs) reveal the tension that did and still does exist between the minority and majority religions.


For Hindu students Putu and Intan, Pancasila limits people’s beliefs and ability to express their own faith tradition, but, at the same time it allows people to find a common ground.


“The beliefs of Muslims and Hindus are so different,” Intan said, “But, we find peace in the idea that we all believe in one God.”


For these two students, living as a religious minority has it’s challenges. For one thing, festvals are not celebrated at the same time and most of the schools and businesses follow the Muslim calendar, something that this opposite on the island of Bali. Clothing is different, food is different and even the way they relate to one another is different. But, for these particular students, Hinduism has taught them to focus on their morality, rather than their religiosity.


“We must remember that we are all human,” said Putu. “We can’t see our neighbor as their religion, we must see them in their humanity.”


The Buddhist students agree that focusing on the physical is more important than focusing on religious differences. They explained their interpretation of Pancaslia as viewing god in everything, rather than just one being. For them, living as a minority religion poses less challenges than Hindus due to the nature of their religious practices and ability to peacefully coexist with others. They explained that their main teachers are to “cease to do evil, cultivate good and purify the heart— all things that support a healthy, peaceful society.”


Lastly, students who practice Protestantism explained how they viewed Pancasila as being a force that prevents intolerance. But, these particular students, who admitted that they did not regularly practice the Christian faith, challenged the notion that Pancasila forces people to accept the existence of one “thing.”

“We need to recognize that our beliefs are the root of a lot of intolerance,” said one student. “We propose that Pancasila should ask for individuals to acknowledge the existence of a ‘godly presence.’”


Hearing the views of differing opinions from different traditions sheds light on the limited importance put on minority voices. Having been told that Java was a place where religious tolerance was thriving, I was surprised to hear the narratives of suppression and minimal social involvement from those that did not identify with Islam. Some people even expressed their concern for religious affiliation in regards to jobs, housing and college acceptances.



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