Apostasy, blasphemy and social ostracisation

According to conservative Islamic rituals in the Arab majority world, non-Muslim men must convert to Islam if they wish to marry a Muslim woman. If anyone wants to renounce Islam and embrace another faith, it is considered apostasy. Those in question face social ostracisation and, in some cases, harsh punishment. Openly practicing other religions is considered blasphemy and even constructive criticism of Islam may be viewed as a threat to the state and its religion.

Indonesiaʹs former president Abdurrahman Wahid (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/AFP)
One of the figures responsible for Indonesiaʹs democratic transformation: Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, was the first democratically elected president following the end of the Suharto dictatorship. He fought for inter-faith dialogue and a peaceful interpretation of Islam. From the outset, he demanded that the ulamas get involved in the "social and cultural transformation of society". Abdurrahman Wahid died in December 2009

In Indonesia things are different: interfaith marriages call for one partner to ceremoniously convert to one of the six acknowledged religious creeds. A Muslim man/woman can convert to their partner’s faith without violating any law, because Indonesia doesn’t have a law specifically devoted to apostasy.

Indonesia does have a blasphemy law, but it is very different from the Arab version. Article 156 (a) of Indonesian Penal Code prescribes a penalty of up to five years imprisonment for expressions or actions in public that have "the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion adhered to in Indonesia", or are committed "with the intention to prevent a person to adhere to any religion based on the belief of the almighty God".

Indonesia therefore protects all religions on the one hand, while punishing the proselytisation of atheism – a situation that could still change in the future.

Indonesiaʹs progressive Muslim thinkers

Indonesia has generated some extraordinary progressive Muslim thinker-activists, men as miscellaneous as Tan Malaka, Haji Misbach, Tjokroaminoto, Agus Salim, Mohamad Natsir, Kartosuwiryo, Nurcholish Madjid, Dawam Rahardjo, Kuntowijoyo and Abdurrahman Wahid.

Apart from a few exceptions, their work has yet to be translated into Arabic or English, which is one reason their comprehensive philosophy  has had little impact on other regions of the world. Were this literature to be made available to the Arab world, it would undoubtedly have a positive influence on its populations and political systems.

The influence of Islamist groups has increased throughout the Middle East because they are looked upon as an insignia of resistance against dictatorial regimes and extended a status of being "upright and untainted". In Indonesia, religious associations have shaped progressive intelligentsias, who have upheld the perception that religion and democracy are compatible.

Being linked to mass religious organisation, these public intellectuals have played a crucial role in Indonesia’s democratisation procedure. Their participation in political society has helped legitimise a democratic society and reinforced pro-democratic coalitions.

Students at Depok University (photo: imago/Xinhua)
Progressive education system: "Indonesia has always been secular and progressive when it comes to education. The Islamic schools in Indonesia, for instance, use Islam as a foundation, but mostly in combination with progressive nationalism"

Indonesia has always been secular and progressive when it comes to education. The Islamic schools in Indonesia, for instance, use Islam as a foundation, but mostly in combination with progressive nationalism. Moreover, Indonesian Islam is known for its syncretic occult rituals, which stem from Javan Hinduism. Islamic practices and customs in Indonesia are characterised by traces of this religious fusion.

Tolerance and openness to different opinions

The Indonesian version of Islam is valued for its lively rational discourse. It is noticeably open to different opinions and religious diversity. Liberal and reformist trends, such as Indonesia’s Muslim feminist movements, are the most vigorous. In the few secular areas within the Arab world, they are well-known for having helped establish a spirited alliance of women’s groups and individual activists taking up numerous women’s issues from grassroots to the legislative level. For the most part, however, Muslim feminist movements in the Arab world still tend to be close to with the ruling elite.

We have to concede that time and circumstances fluctuate, political philosophies vary, structures of economic elites contrast, arrays of civil-military relations vary, as do corresponding positions within the international system of power and authority, all to greater or lesser scopes. Yet, if reformers in the Arab world want to generate long-lasting positive change, then emulating some of what has actually worked in Indonesia would be a good place to start.

Abhishek Mohanty

© Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC) 2018

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Comments for this article: What the Arab world can learn from Indonesia

Nice! How did you manage to omit the biggest slaughter in Indonesia's 20th century? I assume that in your approach to Indonesia it did not have any role to play; it has been erased from memory and heritage! I guess because your peespective is the liberal truth and there is no other truth except from a liberal perspective. Thus, one need to find liberal trends in "Islam" and if they don't exist, one should invent them. Someone might help you question your one-sided way of thinking (Jospeh Massad in Islam in Liberalism). Also, when one deals with nationalism (in Indonesia and south east Asia in general) one should refer to the seminal work or at least the findings of Benedict Anderson.

Nadeem06.07.2018 | 12:39 Uhr