Atheists not allowed

What do you do in a country where you have to belong to a religion?

I've written admiringly before about Indonesia, that vast, sprawling country of over 17,000 islands and 240 million people where the national motto, "Unity in diversity", is no mere slogan to which politicians pay lip-service, but a living and celebrated sentiment.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim state, with nearly 90 per cent of the population following the religion that first came to south-east Asia in the 13th century. But confessional freedom is guaranteed in the constitution. "All persons have the right to worship according to their own religion or belief," it declares. And as my report from Jakarta published in August concluded, even the Islamist parties that win small but significant shares of the vote are keen not to alienate the electorate by coming across as too militant. They will push locally for "Islamic" laws, yes (and the situation in Aceh is exceptional for too many reasons to go into here), but the country's pluralism is ingrained and the exercise of freedom much cherished after decades of dictatorship.

However, this liberty has one major omission. You cannot officially be an atheist in Indonesia. For the constitution also says that "the state shall be based upon belief in the one, supreme God" – although it deliberately doesn't specify which. Such vagueness may sound like the kind of fudge we in Britain, with our traditions of gradualism and compromise, should recognise. But this, too, is limited. Only six religions are recognised – Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. (Judaism, it may be noted, is not listed; but then, according to the World Jewish Congress estimate, there are only 25 Jewish people in Indonesia, and recent efforts to revive one community – including building what is thought to be the world's tallest menorah – have been welcomed and supported by local officials on the island of Sulawesi.)

All this has consequences: you have to declare your religion on your ID card, and atheism is not an option. In practical terms, most people will choose to enter the religion their families follow, however loosely (it is often not appreciated that, for many people, especially those in urban areas, religion is often much more a badge of cultural identity than a faith). It still means, however, that atheists are having to profess publicly to something they don't believe in. Their own belief, or lack of belief, cannot be officially acknowledged.

As these two reports detail, they have turned instead to the internet to form online communities where they can discuss and debate. One quotes Didi, a 29-year-old architect, as saying that it's the only way "to share my thoughts and to meet people who think the same way I do, because I don't see many in my real life. It's easier to say that you're gay than an atheist."

And there's more. The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission put it thus in a report in February.

There is no provision for individuals with no religious belief to enter into a civil marriage contract, and no legal documentation for those without such a belief. This results in people keeping their atheist beliefs secret and when the time comes to marry, they make the choice of either marrying in a religious ceremony that is devoid of meaning for them, or not marrying at all, which can leave their family and offspring without legal protection.

Moreover, under Indonesian Law No 23 of 2006 on Civic Administration, individuals are required to record their faith on legal documents such as identity cards and birth certificates. Atheists who ascribe to no religion or those who wish to leave the column blank or to register under one of the non-recognised religions face discrimination and harassment – including refusal of employment.

The commission concludes: "Forcing an Indonesian to adopt a religion as part of her identity grossly undermines his right to freedom of thought and religion under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

It may be, as the Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim once put it, that "Homo religiosus" is the norm in much of Asia. It may be, too, that there are more pressing issues for the country to address, such as the phenomenal levels of corruption. But if Indonesia is to continue on the path of pluralism and become a new model for developing democracies – as many hope it will – it needs to draw on that spirit of generosity which is one of the country's most attractive qualities.

If people of faith desire members of other religions to respect their differing supernatural beliefs, it should surely not be too much of a leap to extend that courtesy to those who have none. It would be unrealistic to expect too much, and the United States, for instance, would be in no position to demand it when a declared atheist wouldn't stand a chance in running for America's highest office.

Allowing citizens merely to register their unbelief and protecting them from discrimination for having done so, however, would be a start – and not really a difficult one, if only there were politicians brave enough to point out that the fabric of the nation would not be torn apart by a few people saying thanks very much, but religion's not for them.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496