Negotiating Orthodoxy, State Neutrality and Religious Freedom:

Supriyanto Abdi, PhD candidate, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

This project aims to examine the contested relationship between religious ortodoxy, state neutrality and religious freedom in Indonesia in light of the conflicting developments in the country’s constitutional, political and religious landscape following the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1998. At the constitutional level, a proposal to establish a formal link between the state and Islam was rejected and a new chapter on human rights, which includes provisions on freedom of religion or belief, was inserted into the amended constitution. In terms of the political and religious landscape, however, post-Suharto Indonesia has also seen the resurgence of conservative and puritan religious groups campaigning against unorthodox religious teachings and religious minorities. These conflicting developments have led in recent years to reinvigorated struggles over the relationship between religious orthodoxy, state authority and the rights of religious minorities in the country.


To examine these renewed struggles, the project focuses on the recent heated debate on the religious and civil rights of Ahmadiyah, a religious movement claiming to be part of Islam while holding on some important doctrinal differences from Sunni orthodoxy. While the controversy over the Ahmadiyah’s theological doctrines has a long history in Indonesia, post-Suharto Indonesia has seen an unprecedented scale of discursive and violent campaigns against the movement from more assertive conservative Islamic groups. In most cases, the state has appeared to be increasingly under pressure to take side with more puritan and conservative Islamic groups and failed to provide constitutionally-mandated protection to its Ahmadis citizens. An analysis of the Ahmadiyah controversy is thus particularly significant not only in sheding some light on the historically contingent and politically negotiated reconfiguration of religion-state relations in contemporary Indonesia, but also in examining whether Indonesia’s transition to democracy necessarily means moving closer towards a more liberal constitutional and political arrangement.  


With this in mind, the project attempts to explore and examine several interrelated questions: In what ways has the post-Suharto debate on Ahmadiyah illustrated the renewed struggles over the boundaries of orthodoxy, limits of state religious interference and the rights of religious minorities in Indonesia? How have the state and various Islamic groups, including liberal and conservative Muslims, engaged in this debate? How have they, in particular, negotiated and grappled with the liberal discourse of state neutrality and religious freedom? And finally, what can the Indonesian debate tell us about possibility and limits of negotiating these liberal discourses in the emerging Muslim-majority democracies?