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
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.