Indonesia isn’t as tolerant as Obama would have us believe

By Ashley Samelson McGuire Wednesday President Obama raised eyebrows in the human rights world when he bestowed lavish praise on … Continued

By Ashley Samelson McGuire

Wednesday President Obama raised eyebrows in the human rights world when he bestowed lavish praise on Indonesia‘s human rights record, particularly with regards to free speech and religious freedom. Specifically the President gave kudos to the most populous Muslim country in the world for the “spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people.”

Yet just seven months ago, Indonesia’s highest court issued a landmark ruling widely considered to be a major setback to speech and religious rights. The Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of Indonesia’s Blasphemy Act, which criminalizes speech or acts considered offensive to government approved religions as well as “deviations from teachings of religion considered fundamental by scholars of the relevant religion.”

Even if we start where the president starts, with the constitution, we run headfirst into serious concerns about the breadth of liberty the document outlines. The preamble states that, “the national independence of Indonesia shall be formulated into a constitution of the sovereign Republic of Indonesia which is based on the belief in the “one and only God.” While varying interpretations of this provision abound, it raises immediate implications for polytheists or atheists. The provision is further complicated by the fact that the Indonesian government only recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Considering that a stated purpose of the Blasphemy Act is to “channel… religiosity” toward these six religions, “tolerance” by Indonesian standards starts to look rather anemic.

The Blasphemy Act provides for both civil and criminal penalties for those who insult approved religions and those who attempt to persuade others to adhere to unofficial religions. This translates into a de facto ban on proselytizing that lends itself to overly broad and arbitrary interpretations by local governments. For example, in September 2005, three Christian women were sentenced to three years imprisonment for conducting a Christian youth program, even though the Muslim children in the program had parental permission to attend, and none of the children had converted to Christianity.

Interestingly however, the Act is used largely as a tool for favored or mainstream religions to clamp down on derivates from those religions. For example, the police arrested the leader of the Sion City of Allah Christian sect and six of his followers for straying from “correct Christian teachings” because the sect is based on only one book of the Bible (the Book of Jeremiah).

In 2008 the government issued a joint decree outlawing the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic religious movement founded in the late 19th Century that believes that Mohammed was not the last prophet of Islam. The decree ordered, “as long as they [Ahmadiyya] consider themselves to hold to Islam, to discontinue the promulgation of interpretations and activities that are deviant from the principal teachings of Islam.”

Perhaps the strangest implementation of the Blasphemy Act was to imprison Sumardi Tappaya, a Muslim and a high school religion teacher, for six months for “deviancy” after a relative accused him of whistling during prayers.

The great irony in President Obama’s choice of “tolerant” to describe Indonesia lies in the fact that he is visiting just months after its highest court upheld a law that essentially sanctions intolerance and places the government in the role of arbiter and judge in private matters of conscience, a law that has seen more than 150 individuals detained or arrested in recent years.

Perhaps of even greater concern is the underlying assumption in the president’s praise: namely that tolerance is enough, or even the right word when speaking of religious freedom. “Tolerance” implies that the thing being “tolerated” is a negative force to be kept at bay. It is this very philosophy actually, that underpins the concept of a blasphemy law. In theory, a blasphemy law keeps everyone from offending each other, and ultimately from harming each other. In reality, it dismantles the core of religion (as truth claims will inevitably conflict), and hoists majority religions into positions of power over minority or disfavored religions.

Just as the president has come under fire for replacing the broad principle of freedom of religion with the far-narrower “freedom of worship,” he should be scrutinized for supplanting religious freedom with religious tolerance.
In both instances he truncates the rights he claims to praise, in a diplomatic environment where his words can easily be interpreted as a license to limit freedom.

Above all, the president’s remarks Wednesday were a missed opportunity to remind Indonesia of its international commitments to ensuring religious freedom for all faiths, not just the six it likes, and to remind the world that America does not condone policies that restrict fundamental human rights in favor of hurt feelings.

Ashley Samelson McGuire works in International Programs for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She writes about her personal views on faith, feminism, and politics at

  • WmarkW

    President Obama is NOT a “secret Muslim.”He’s a secret Indonesian.

  • AKafir

    Obama is trying to appease the Muslims. The American Government apparently thinks that by appeasing Islam they will minimize the recruitment of soldiers for the jihadists around the world. By confronting the ideology of Islam, they are convinced that will anger young muslims who will be motivated to actively pursue violence against American Interests. Obama could have used the bully pulpit to encourage muslims to look at their treatment of their Kafir citizens and challenge them to join the 21st century. Instead he reassures them that they are great as they are and hence their brutality of the non-muslims among them is totally acceptable to the US. That is an immoral stand of convenience that will come back to bite. Obama puts the blame on the US for “misunderstandings” with the Islamic world. Appeasement will not work. Those who wish to kill us quote the Quran and the example of Muhammad to justify their actions. We need to confront that ideology and not try to appease it.

  • WmarkW

    Appeasement will not work. Those who wish to kill us quote the Quran and the example of Muhammad to justify their actions. We need to confront that ideology and not try to appease it.Posted by: AKafir We need a way to run our cars and airplanes with electricity or hydrogen first.

  • AKafir

    WMarkW writes: “We need a way to run our cars and airplanes with electricity or hydrogen first.”In this interconnected world, no one can do without the other. They cannot drink or eat their oil. They need us just as we need them. Is that reason that we should stop speaking for what is right? Riding in a car or flying in a plane when you hate yourself because you sold yourself for the proverbial few shillings is not much fun. But then who knows, appeasement for the sake of riding cars and air planes, the OIC may just confirm the Islamic saying that the Kafirs will sell you the rope with which they will be hanged.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Indonesia not tolerant? Really? Pleez. They still haven’t genocided the remaining 64,000 West Papuans.

  • abrahamhab1

    “Above all, the president’s remarks Wednesday were a missed opportunity to remind Indonesia of its international commitments to ensuring religious freedom for all faiths, not just the six it likes.’Indonesia ensures religious freedom of one so-called religion which is Islam, and claims to be tolerant toward five others. Even though this is not acceptable by civilized people it is a big improvement on those that are tolerant toward only one religion; their own.

  • Jihadist

    Hi Ashley, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty? Nice work the organisation is doing, defending religious rights everywhere. But did this organisation not, once before, defended a university for sacking a fellow for not agreeing to certain church doctrine? I could be wrong. Back to Indonesia, they’ve only come out of the “dark” after decades of internal conflicts to keep their nation together and with authoritarian governance. Read President Obama’s speech in the context of the President’s target audience – urging Indonesians to do the right thing in encouraging their new awareness of democracy, human rights, good and transparent governance and justice.ICT tools is changing Indonesia’s very lively public discourse and national direction for better or for worse. No one said democracy is not messy and Indonesians know it.

  • AKafir

    Jihadist writes: “Back to Indonesia, they’ve only come out of the “dark” after decades of internal conflicts to keep their nation together and with authoritarian governance.”An Islamic supremacist like Jihadist is incapable of seeing that Indonesia is walking into the “dark” hell hole that Islam creates. The normal progression of Islamic takeover was interrupted for a few centuries for Indonesia, but now it is back on track. Aceh is merely leading the rest of the country. The hate for the non-muslims, the destruction of non-muslim culture, the destruction of indigenous culture, and worshipping of anything and everything arabic has resumed in Indonesia. Blasphemy law is weilded like a weapon in all Muslim countries and Indonesia is no different.The government used the blasphemy law in the past to outlaw religious groups, including Ahmadiya, a minority Islamic group banned in 2008 whose members identify themselves as Muslims but do not believe in the core tenet of Islam that Muhammad is the last prophet.They also say conservative Islamic groups have used the law as justification’Blow to freedom’Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US based rights organisation, said the ruling “dealt a severe blow to religious freedom” in the world’s third-largest democracy.”Indonesia’s laws should protect those who peacefully express religious views and punish those who threaten to use violence against others, not the other way around,” Elaine Pearson of HRW said.The US commission on international religious freedom, a non-partisan body that advises the US government, said the ruling may embolden religious extremists and foster sectarian strife.Chairul Annam, one of the lawyers arguing for the law’s repeal, said “the judges closed their eyes and hearts.We are very sorry that discrimination suffered by minorities in this country was not recognised by the court.”Obama’s partiality towards Islam makes him ignore the violence, discrimination, and hate that the non-muslims in muslim countries (including the famous moderate malaysia and indonesia) suffer.

  • harishgopal

    Whereever Muslims are in majority, it is a land of intolerance and hatred towards non-Muslims.

  • frankensundae

    Tolerance? Indonesia is far from tolerant. Ask Hindus in Bali (where they constitute the majority) how they were, and are, treated by the national government. Ask Christians in Timor. Ask Jews who aren’t recognized as one of the accepted religions and cannot enter the country if they have a passport stamp from Israel. Tolerant? Militant Islamic groups (and yes, the very violent, homicidal type) targeted and continue to target gathering places for non-Muslims, tourists, and others who they despise. And that includes schools for children that have to shut down when threatened and are forced to employ very strict security measures so they can actually teach (secular curriculums so there’s no mention of anything involving religion). Tolerance? If that’s “tolerance” and the President sees it as such, we should be very alarmed.

  • roxyhumz

    Very well-written article that sheds light on some of the key elements of Indonesian constitution and what it means for minorities. Indonesia is certainly not as tolerant as one would like to believe. I am an Ahmadi Muslim and I can attest to the fact that Indonesian Ahmadis have to continuously fear for their lives and property. The country is not safe for those who want to believe in something different. Also, Ahmadis believes in Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him as the las law-bearing prophet. We believe that Ahmad of Qadian (peace be with him) only came to revive the teachings of Islam in the footsteps of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).

  • amtulmussawir

    Very well written article by Ashley McGuire because Indonesia is not as tolerant as President Obama made it seem. As an Ahmadi Muslim, we strongly believe in the separation of church and state. For more information, please visit a side note, Ahmadi Muslims, do believe that Prophet Muhummad was the last law-bearing prophet. Ahmadi Muslims believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the Promised Reformer, and he was sent to revive the true teachings of Islam, in accordance with the sayings of Prophet Muhummad.

  • manahil

    This article explains the complex state of freedom of religion in Indonesia better than Obama’s strong-on-rhetoric short-on-reality speech.

  • Qudsia00

    Thank you for the very informative article. It is truly bizarre that President Obama would pay such a sweeping compliment to a country that has so recently shown so much religious intolerance. For anyone interested, please visit

Read More Articles

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.