It’s late on a muggy Sunday afternoon in a dimly lit coffee shop in south Jakarta. Many among those sipping cappuccinos use pseudonyms. The talk is about “coming out” to their parents, the challenges of leading a double life, the fear of discrimination at work, and dealing with threats of violence.
In many countries, these are conversations typically associated with the gay community. But, sexual orientation has nothing to do with this particular group. The stigma they suffer comes from their beliefs, or rather, their lack of belief. For they are all members of Indonesian Atheists, a community of “unbelievers” in what is a deeply religious country.
Rising intolerance in Indonesia, a country that has a long tradition of syncretism, has been in the news in recent months. Earlier this year a Human Rights Watch report lambasted the Sunni Muslim-majority country for failing to protect minorities. But, the attention is usually focused on religious minorities, with atheists rarely getting a mention. Yet, these are precisely the people least protected by the Indonesian state.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Mr. Zubaidi (who only uses one name), made this clear. “We welcome every religion here,” he beamed. Indonesia only recognises six religions officially: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Confucianism. I asked if religions not covered under these categories were also legally protected. “Of course,” he replied, before adding a caveat. “But, if you are an atheist then it’s different. Perhaps Indonesia is not the right country for you.”
Indonesia is not a Muslim theocracy, but nor is it a “secular” state in the usually accepted sense of the word. The Constitution declares that the state is based on belief in the “One and Only God.” However, it stops short of identifying this god and goes on to guarantee freedom of religion and worship. Atheists are left on precarious legal ground.
“Our beliefs can always be accused of contravening the law,” explains Karl Karnadi, a 29-year-old software engineer who co-founded the Indonesian Atheists Facebook page in 2008. In a Skype interview from Germany, where he currently lives, Karnadi said that any statement that questions the existence of god can be interpreted as blasphemous given the broad ambit of Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law.
Last year, a civil servant from West Sumatra, Alexander Aan, was charged with blasphemy for Facebook posts stating that “God does not exist” and “derogatory” cartoons and comments related to the Prophet Muhammad. He was eventually sentenced to 2.5 years in prison, and convicted under a separate electronics communications law that seeks to control defamation on the internet.
Paths to atheism
Prosecutions for statements made on the internet, have left atheists feeling more vulnerable than ever. Indonesian Atheists is now a closed group on Facebook. Its 1,600-odd members try and meet in person, rather than risk getting on the wrong side of the internet law.
Most of the dozen-odd atheists assembled in the coffee shop are in their twenties and thirties. They are all well educated, white-collar workers. But their paths to atheism have been varied.
A journalist from the city of Bandung who asks to be identified as “Sophie,” grew up in a liberal Muslim household. Her father was a university lecturer in philosophy and took it quite calmly when she “came out.” Theo, a graphic designer, comes from a deeply religious, Christian background. He became an atheist after learning about Darwinian evolution, something that was not taught to him in school. He has never formally come out to his parents, although he believes they suspect his leanings.
Neither Sophie nor Theo broadcast their atheist beliefs at work, preferring to “pass” as religious. In Indonesia it is compulsory to list religion on ID cards, and Sophie’s says she is Muslim. Although it is technically possible to ask for this space to remain blank, in practice it can prove difficult. Administrative officers often refuse point-blank to accept such requests.
“It’s easier to say I’m a Muslim,” Sophie sighs. “It’s easier for my work. And it’s safer to be in the majority.”
But Karina, who works in the finance department of a company is “out” and doesn’t care who knows. She grew up in Tasikmalaya, a small town in West Java known for its conservatism. All the girls in her school wore hijabs . But, on hearing her Junior High religious education teacher proclaim that no one except Muslims could go to heaven, Karina found herself questioning, and later, rejecting Islam. When she stopped wearing her hijab and was queried about the reasons by her teachers, she chose to smile innocently and claim. ‘My heart is wearing a hijab . Isn’t that enough?”
After spending years in intellectual isolation, Karina felt an acute sense of liberation on discovering the Indonesian Atheists group online.
When she told her parents she was an atheist, during the Idul Fitri holidays last year, her mother cried and her father, a postal worker, tried to reason with her, but she stood firm. A year on, her father has come to accept Karina and her friends to the extent that he recently drove them to an atheist meet in Bandung.
“I am happier now than I’ve ever been before,” says Karina and the others nod. Yet, they remain frightened about the future. From getting married — a religious official is mandatory at wedding ceremonies — to bringing up atheist children in a deeply religious country, the future is a confusing, and potentially dangerous place for them.
“The moment someone hears you are atheist, they accuse you of being communist,” explains Sophie. In Indonesia, over a million suspected communists were killed in purges by the army in 1965, a fact that these youngsters are well cognisant of. Theo recalls having received death threats for simply having “liked” the Indonesian Atheist page, when it was still an open group.
Many are now hedging their bets. Sophie says she tries to ensure she’ll stay out of trouble online. “I make sure that on Facebook I’ve clicked “like” on not only the Atheists page, but also those of Islamic and Christian groups. You can never be too careful.”