Reflecting on Religious Tolerance in Indonesia

Indonesian Muslims attend an Eid al-Adha


After reading recent news from US (and more recently, Canada), I found that some Indonesians challenge the majority (read: Muslims) of this country to be more tolerant. They thought that if non-Muslims in both of North American countries could stand up for Muslims, Indonesian Muslims should do so, instead of just whining and playing as victims.

When I found some tweets addressing this issue, I gasped. I felt that they could make situation worse by stating their opinions in cynical tone. Thus, as an Indonesian Muslim, I have something to tell to you, dear readers. Based on the topic, I would like to focus on religious tolerance in Islam and the situations regarding that issue in Indonesia.

Religious tolerance in Islam

I am still learning Islam, but as far as I know, Islam teaches us to be tolerant towards other people who have different religion with us. In a Qur’anic surah there is a verse that imply every Muslim should stand in his/her faith and let others practice their religions (To you be your religion, to me be mine). In another surah, there is a verse which told us to not force other people to accept Islam as their religion. Also, prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) practiced religious tolerance towards people during his time and laid down a constitution to ensure the harmony and stability in the heterogeneous society (Abdulsalam, 2006).

Religious tolerance in Indonesia

There are 6 religions acknowledged in Indonesia: Islam, Catholic, Protestant, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Indonesia has never claimed to be a religious state, but have a ministry which organize religion affairs. The majority of Indonesians are Muslims, but the proportion is sometimes smaller in certain provinces. People of different religions coexist in Indonesia peacefully, despite of certain conflicts and riots that had happened here (e.g. Ambon riot and several incidents in smaller extent).

Nowadays, this issue comes to surface again after what happened in Kepulauan Seribu, Jakarta province. A governor candidate said something bad about Qur’an and Islamic scholars related to whether his audiences at that time choose him or not. Indonesian Muslims spoke up in several occasions, demanded the candidate to be punished by law for what he had done. The situation are heating up until now, not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also people who stand up for the candidate and people who are not.

What others (sometimes) expect of Muslims in Indonesia

Islam is rahmatan lil ‘alamiin, so people expect Muslims to be tolerant, gentle, and understanding. This is true, but what people expect from Muslims sometimes goes too far from how Islam should be practiced. We cannot join in celebrations of other religion or stating our empathy by saying we are just like other religions because it violates the rule of Islam (which tell us to acknowledge the One and Only God, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala). We cannot just stand still and keep silent when Islam is attacked; what we should do is stand up and fight back, because that is how we prove our faith. We have to demand the government following certain policy which prohibit Muslims to practice our religion because that way, we can protect our rights in this country.

People may not know, but despite being the majority, Muslims are not always at upper hand. Remember when hijab was banned in National Police Department and this ban was finally lifted. Remember when local government are criticized for protecting the Muslims’ right to do fasting in Ramadan (while in other cities or regencies, people respected this policy). And remember when certain company asked their Muslim employee to wear attributes related to other religion. To put it short, Muslims’ rights to practice Islam is not fully respected.

How Indonesian Muslims perceive the existence of other religions

In many parts of Indonesia, Muslims make up the majority, even become an identity for certain tribes (Minangkabau for example). Here, we can say that if a Minangese person choose to leave Islam, he/she is not a Minangese anymore and has to leave the society also. However, people of other religions (which usually come from other ethnicities) are welcomed. They could practice their religion in legal facilities and live in harmony with Muslims

 I do not know much of the details, but certain cases of prohibiting non-Muslims building facilities for their religions had happened in Indonesia. Certain Muslim societies here  do not expect non-Muslims to build new facilities for theirs. The reason is they do not want the bad consequences of building those facilities. If the building process finished, non-Muslims will practice their religion freely and then influencing Muslims to follow their way. Even non-Muslims could influence Muslims without building those facilities legally because the non-Muslims can do several way to approach Muslims, be it by education, financial support, health facilities, and so on. This worry is not without any reason. In fact, some Muslims had converted into another religion following these approaches and influences of certain non-Muslim figures. Yet, this fact is not to be generalized for all non-Muslims in Indonesia. I am sure that not all of them intended to interfere with Muslims. However, bad experiences in the past has raised Muslims’ concern to protect themselves and strengthen their faith.

What to do regarding this issue

After several incidents, it seems there are some frictions between Muslims and non Muslims. Muslims are disappointed because they do not treated fairly, even as majority. At the same time, Muslims feel threatened by strategies to convert them to follow other religion, which ruined their unity in the end. Furthermore, what others expect of them is sometimes not called as tolerance, but the way to drift them off the values of Islam. In the other hand, non-Muslims feel that Muslims is only protect their rights, yet do not care for others. They demand Muslims to be more tolerant. If Muslims are free to practice their religion, they should have that freedom too.

So, what we should do?

We need to understand each other. Embrace the plurality and respect for what others choose for themselves. Do not make fun of other religions nor everything related to them. Do not abuse the freedom to practice religion. When in Rome, do as Romans do, not because Islam is majority, but it is the way to live in harmony (Muslims have to suit themselves also when they come in minorities). Do not force others into our religion. Also, please hold ourselves from saying something provoking in social media, especially when it is related to other religion.

However, we also need the government. The government has to treat the citizens fairly. Their rights to practice their religion should be protected. When any religion is harassed or attacked, the culprit(s) should be punished by law, regardless of their religion. The religious tolerance issues is very sensitive, thus need to be solved seriously. And the important point is, the right to be treated equally in front of the law is not to be compromised with the plurality spirit of Indonesia.

Closing statement

Last but not least, tolerance is not about solely respecting the majorities while ignoring the minorities. In the other hand, tolerance is not about keeping the majorities in hold while letting the minorities go up. Paying respect to others, even though they are different, perhaps that is how tolerance should be practiced.

Indonesia is consists or different people, different ethnicity, different religion. We used to live peacefully in harmony. Now, the harmony is getting ruined. Let’s do something to end the frictions. Let’s do something to return the peace to our daily lives.

Wallahu a’lam.

p.s. I sincerely apologize to you if this post makes you uncomfortable. If you have similar or different points with mine, please let me know.

Image source: here


15 thoughts on “Reflecting on Religious Tolerance in Indonesia

    1. Me, too. Actually I got angry inside at that time. I couldn’t resist the urge to write my opinion, but my activities beat me so… I found myself a bit cooled down. Besides, writing this post in English helped me to create such an emotional distance with my writing. Please share yours, too, Azmi, because I would like to know what do you think about this issue ❤

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Ami, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I want to share mine too,I think majority of muslims in Indonesia can sometimes feel “over the moon” with the fact that they are a majority compared to other religion. And I am saying this based on my own experience.. it may be different than others, but that’s the beauty of diversity, right? 🙂

    For example, just last month in early January I went to a supermarket and found Islamic songs were played over the speaker. As a muslim I felt weird because it is a public place, not a mosque and it’s not Ramadhan. Of course nobody protested but I think the case will be a bit different if, let’s say, the supermarket played Christian songs.

    Also, I don’t quite agree that we need to protect our faith. Or maybe I just don’t understand why we should do it. Why can’t non-muslims in Indonesia practice their religion freely just like muslims? I mean, whole my life I live near a mosque and often hear religious sermons or pengajian being broadcasted out loud through speaker…which I think may be considered as an act of “influencing non-muslims to follow muslim teaching”, but never once I heard a church or temple do the same.

    I understand there are some parties (a small part, I surely hope), that do bad things (forcing to convert, etc etc) towards the other groups like you mentioned… but I don’t understand the reasoning behind “why we need to protect our faith” and then not allowing others to practice their belief freely. For me, the best way to protect my faith is to learn about it more and try my best to be closer to God 🙂

    In the end, I agree with your closing statements, there’s nothing I want more than peace on earth despite our diversity. Anyway I hope I don’t provoke and most importantly hurt anyone’s feelings. I just want to share my thoughts and hope can get a fruitful and peaceful discussion ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Mbak Christa 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think it’s because majority of people here are Muslims (and the Islamic song does not disturb most of them), so that’s why. I think in places where Muslims are not that many, they also cannot express their identity as free as here. About that sermons, I think ustadzs intend to reach Muslim community outside the masjid, not the non-Muslims. While if the situation get reversed, Muslim will get offended because those sermons ‘disturb’ them, right? I actually do not know how to explain this phenomenon, but maybe it’s more related to social harmony. But I think, in places where Muslims are not that many, they are prohibited to broadcast sermons even adzan. Still, I am sorry because I can’t find the explanation about this ‘discrepancies’.

      I think it’s not about prohibiting others to practice their religion freely, but it’s more about limiting new facilities for non-Muslims (so they can bring their practices in community level) where bigger community of Muslims has already existed (since long time ago, perhaps). Some muslims will ask some questions like “Why new facilities?Are they that many? Does it mean that our people follow them too?”

      Also, I think we need to protect our faith by raising our awareness to ‘that kind of bad practice’ because sometimes people just cannot maintain their faith by themselves. Here, we are worried because more and more people get easily influenced. Thus, many ustadzs will warn us to be more aware of those bad influences and approaches. At least that’s what I have experienced here. Maybe the case is different in your place, Mbak, so I would not like to force my opinion to you (and all readers) 🙂

      I hope I don’t hurt your feelings, too, Mbak Christa. I am glad to try viewing this issue in other perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah.. good piece.. I think that even if majority of Indonesian are Muslim but the holiday is on Sunday also a sign of tolerance that people often forgotten about..
    In many European countries, public holiday related to religion is always related to Christianity, but in Indonesia, all religion have public holiday

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Mas. Indeed, weekly holiday which fall on Sunday is a sign of tolerance that often forgotten. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just realized that in many European countries, religious celebration is just like usual day, not being a holiday like in Indonesia 🙂


    1. Hello, I am sorry for late approval. Just scrolling through old comments and found yours. Yep, thank you so much. I hope there will be no inter-religion conflicts in Indonesia in the future 🙂


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