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A sweet note of religious harmony in Indonesia

Shift in thought

A court in the world’s most populous Muslim country bans religious discrimination by the government, creating a legal beacon for the region and Islamic world.

A Muslim student holds a book in a class at a school in Cikawao village of Majalaya, West Java province, Indonesia,
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In Myanmar (Burma), the Muslim minority is on the run from extremists in the Buddhist majority. In nearby Malaysia, some in the Muslim majority refuse to do business with the Hindu minority. In the Philippines, Islamic terrorists target the Christian majority with bombs and bullets.

Amid such religious tensions in Southeast Asia, it is worth noting that the Constitutional Court of Indonesia issued a ruling Nov. 7 that upholds religious freedom. It ordered the government to no longer discriminate against people whose faith is not one of the six religions that have been officially recognized since 1965 (Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). Instead, officials must ensure equality before the law regardless of a person’s faith and honor the Constitution’s guarantee of “freedom of religion and worship.”

The ruling serves not only as a legal beacon for one corner of Asia but also for much of the Islamic world. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation with close to 90 percent of its 260 million people identifying as Muslim. While it has a mixed record of tolerance toward non-Muslims, it is widely admired among many in the Middle East as a model for harmony between different religions.

The country’s reputation, however, has lately been challenged by a rise in groups seeking a nondemocratic caliphate and by a number of terrorist attacks committed by Islamic militants since 2000. In May, a recent former governor of the capital region was jailed on charges of blasphemy against Islam. And in many local areas, the rights of religious minorities are restricted.

The high court’s ruling is one step toward containing such religious intolerance. In September, President Joko Widodo called on universities to promote the official ideology of secular rule. He appointed a special envoy for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. And, in a controversial move, the government passed a law that outlaws any civil organization that violates or threatens Indonesia’s pluralist tradition. One group, Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, has already been banned.

“Moderate Muslims are too quiet. We have to become radical moderates,” said Abdul Mu’ti, secretary-general of the Muslim reformist group Muhammadiyah, at a recent conference.

A few other Muslim-majority countries, such as Tunisia, have notched some success in religious tolerance. Indonesia bears watching as it puts its faith in equality into equality between faiths.

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