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
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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.