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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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.