Information und Analyse

Merkel sent the wrong signals

Information and Analysis, 14 July 2012

 by Alex Flor


Chancellor Merkel in Jakarta

photo: Jörg Meier

The Indonesian Constitution gives people the freedom to be atheists or communists, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was told by Constitutional Court chief Mahfud MD. These words, cited by the daily Jakarta Post sound nice.

As a matter of fact, Indonesian laws up until today are restrictive on the point of spreading communist ideology. Whether it be a revival of the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia), once the biggest communist party outside of communist countries, or any new party following a Marxist-Leninist ideology, the forming of any such political party or movement would still be deemed illegal under current legislation. Individuals, media and civil society organizations are criminalized if they openly spread communist ideology.

The same is true for atheists or many believers of minority religions or sects. What will it mean to confessing atheist Alexander Aan, who recently was convicted to 2.5 years in prison, if the Head of the Constitutional Court underlines that freedom of faith, as guaranteed by the Constitution, includes the right to be an atheist? Alexander Aan still remains behind prison bars.

On 12 July Tajul Muluk, a Shi’a Muslim religious leader from East Java, was sentenced to two years in prison for „blasphemy“, i.e. deviation from the dominant denomination of Islam in Indonesia (Sunna). Sunna orthodoxy is watched over and defined by the influential Council of Muslim Scholars (MUI, Majelis Ulama Indonesia).

On 29 December 2011 Tajul Muluk’s village was attacked by a mob of 500 people who looted and set fire to houses, a boarding school and a mosque. Nobody called the perpetrators to discipline. Instead, only two days later MUI released a „fatwa“ that declared Tajul Muluk’s teachings as deviant, and another two days later a police report was filed against him. <>

Obviously, there is a divergence between constitutional rights and lived reality. What does it mean then if Mahfud MD outlines the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to the German chancellor? There are two ways of interpreting Mahfud MD’s comments: perhaps he was, like the Government of Indonesia, seeking to downplay this divergence in front of the international public. Or perhaps, being fully aware that Angela Merkel is well informed about the real circumstances, Mahfud MD wanted to send a signal that the Constitutional Court needs more backing by the international community – not least by Germany as one of the most important supporters of this Court – in order to be able to deal with such breaches of the constitution.

„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 It was not reported whether Mahfud MD also explained how Alexander Aan and Tajul Muluk purportedly interfered with the „freedom of people of other religions“.

A main weakness of the Constitutional Court is, that it only has a mandate to deal with national laws. It cannot interfere with regional or local legislation or other practices that quite often violate constitutional rights and/or national laws.

It is good to know that the German Chancellor raised the question of freedom of religion and related issues during her recent visit to Jakarta. A few days before her visit Theophilus Bela, an official of the Indonesian Catholic Church, reminded her through the German media not to repeat the mistake of UK Prime Minister Cameron, who uncritically praised religious harmony in Indonesia as a model.

How did, then, Angela Merkel fall into the same trap after all? Fully aware of the persecution of religious minorities Merkel, too, praised Indonesia as a role model of interfaith harmony. Visiting a protestant church and a mosque was not the strong signal that was needed. On the contrary, it was the wrong signal! It only underlined the official doctrine of interfaith harmony, and it did not address the realities of persecution, threats and even murders of people of „deviant“ beliefs.

We had hoped that the German Chancellor would use her visit to reiterate and underline both the recommendations on freedom of religion and on human rights in Papua made by her own Government during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in May 2012.

Instead, economic interests once again trumped over human rights. „Good governance“ is one of three key focal points in the current scheme of bilateral cooperation at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). In the end, it was Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who taught the German Chancellor a lesson about transparency and therefore „good governance“. While the German Government still denies that there were any negotiations about weapons sales, President Yudhoyono frankly admitted at a press conference that Indonesia wants to buy weapon systems from Germany, obviously referring to a deal to buy 100 second hand „Leopard“ tanks.



The Jakarta Post, July 12 2012

‘Atheists, Commies welcome’

Sita W. Dewi


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

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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