Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Strange Case of Dr. Jokowi and Mr. Hyde: Religious Freedom at the Crossroads in Indonesia

–Stefanus Hendrianto, University of Notre Dame

Since the 2014 election in Indonesia, many have highlighted the rise of President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, who came from a humble beginning to beat an establishment figure in Indonesia.[1] One of the highlights of Jokowi’s meteoric rise is his record among religious minorities. When Jokowi began his political career as a Mayor of Solo, he chose a Christian politician as his running mate and he later picked a Christian of Chinese-descent as his Vice Governor of Jakarta. This was stunning because religion is often important in Indonesian politics; thus, having a Christian running mate may provide a candidate with tremendous disadvantage. Moreover, Indonesia has a long history of discrimination against its Chinese minority.

Not long after Jokowi took office, Pew Research released a report finding that Indonesia is in the top three of the world’s most-populous countries with the highest levels of restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.[2] Here, I will analyze how Jokowi has dealt with the issue of religious pluralism in his first year in office. Unfortunately, his record thus far in presidential office has not even come close to bearing out the promise suggested by his past actions.

In Jokowi’s first year in office, some people have criticized him for doing little to stop religious intolerance and abuses by Islamic militants. At a rhetorical level, Jokowi at least publicly recognized that Indonesia had a problem of rising religious intolerance. In his address to the Sixth Indonesian Muslim Congress in Yogyakarta, Jokowi called for tolerance over extremism.[3]  But Jokowi’s message was completely ignored by some Islamic militants. Just two weeks after Jokowi was sworn in as President, Islamic militant groups of the Islamic Defender Front attacked a Catholic Community in West Java during the celebration of the Holy Mass.[4] In July 2015, dozens of members of the Yogyakarta Islamic Jihad Front (FJI) came to the Indonesian Baptist Church located in Bantul Regency, Yogyakarta and threatened to shut down the Church over a claim that it lacked a proper building permit from the Bantul regency administration.[5] A few days later, three unidentified men burned down the Church.  Instead of hunting the perpetrators, the Bantul regency administration in Yogyakarta requested members of the Indonesian Baptist Church (GBI) congregation to close down their church, while the regency reviewed its building permit application.[6]

Jokowi has also been criticized for his ineffectiveness in dealing with the regional government in regard to religious matters. For instance, President Jokowi’s office is a mere five-minute walk from Bogor City Hall,[7] and it was at this office that Mayor Bima Arya agreed to prohibit members of the Shia community from celebrating the Shia religious feast day.[8] More recently, just five days before the first anniversary of the Jokowi presidency, thousands of Christians left Aceh Singkil regency, Aceh, after an Islamic group attacked a village and burned down a church.[9] The local authorities in Aceh province have also moved to shut down several Christian churches in the area.[10]

Jokowi’s inaction on these issues can be traced back to his rise to the presidency. During the presidential campaign, Jokowi had to deal with bizarre attempts to cast doubt on his religious affiliations— he was accused of being a closet Christian. Such incidents explain why he did not want to take a strong stance against Islamic militants. Jokowi’s power base includes the secular-nationalist political blocs, while the Islamic political blocs supported his archrival Prabowo Subianto. As Jokowi only secured a narrow margin of victory with the support of an unstable political coalition, he did not want to provide extra political ammunition for Islamic political blocs by siding with religious minorities.

On the other hand, the problem of religious intolerance in Indonesia can also be traced back to several structural sources related to the constitution. First, Indonesia is not a theocratic state and it does not have an official religion. Nevertheless, the Constitution contains a general limitations clause for its bill of rights. This clause stipulates that “in the enjoyment of their rights and freedoms, each person is obliged to submit to the limits determined by law…and taking into consideration morality, religious values, security, and public order, in a democratic community.”[11] For Islamic politicians, the limitations clause provides assurance that the exercise of rights may not contradict Islamic values.[12] In the last ten years, the Constitutional Court has repeatedly relied on this limitations clause and ruled that the state has authority to limit liberty as long as the restriction pertains to morality, religion, and public order in a democratic society.[13] Therefore, Islamic forces have become convinced that they have a constitutional basis for limiting the rights of religious minorities.

The second constitutional problem is the relationship between the central government and regional government. The Constitution provides that regional governments have authority to manage and administer their own affairs.[14] This constitutional arrangement means that the regions do not regard themselves as subservient to or dependent upon the central government. The Regional Governance Law has reserved religious affairs to the central government.[15] The Law also provides that the Central Government has authority to revoke Regional Regulations (Peraturan Daerah – Perda).[16] But President Jokowi has thus far proven unwilling to play hard ball by revoking many Regional Regulations that limits religious liberty.

The third major constitutional hurdle for religious minorities is the lack of proper constitutional mechanisms to challenge administrative actions. Many regulations that impose restrictions upon religious freedom are in the form of ministerial regulations or regional regulations. For instance, many religious conflicts in the recent years have been attributed to the Joint Ministerial Regulation on Building Houses of Worship.[17] But ordinary citizens cannot challenge those regulations before the Constitutional Court, since it has no authority to review ministerial or regional regulations. Therefore, there are many administrative regulations that escape constitutional review.[18]

During the presidential race, there were many concerns that Jokowi was not tough enough compared to his opponent, the former military general Prabowo Subianto. Having spent one year in office, Jokowi tried to prove that his critics was wrong by taking many actions that would be perceived as decisive. He cut fuel subsidies by 30 % and ordered the sinking of any fishing boats that entered Indonesian waters illegally. He was also tough on drug dealers by rejecting clemency pleas for convicted traffickers and supporting the death penalty for them. However, so far he has been unable to rein in intolerance and other abuses by segments of the Islamic majority.

In the long run, there should be a discussion of constitutional reform, especially with regard to the religious clause in the Constitution. The notion of a state that is neither theocratic nor secular does not seem to work any longer for Indonesia. Moreover, lawmakers should reevaluate the general limitations clause in the bill of rights as well as access points to the Constitutional Court for administrative issues. Regardless of whether or not these needed amendments are carried out, religious minorities in Indonesia must hope that Jokowi will fulfill his campaign promise to restore Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant and pluralistic Muslim majority state.

Suggested citation: Stefanus Hendrianto, The Strange Case of Dr. Jokowi and Mr. Hyde: Religious Freedom at the Crossroads in Indonesia, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 29, 2015, at:

[1] Jokowi was a son of carpenter who became a furniture businessman before he joined politics. In the 2014 election, he defeated Prabowo Subianto, who not only served as a general under Soeharto, the dictator who reigned for 32 years, but was also Soeharto’s former son-in-law.

[2] Pew Research Center, Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities, February 26, 2015, p.5, available at

[3] The Jakarta Post, Jokowi calls for tolerance over extremism, February 12, 2015, at

[4] Vatican Radio, West Java: Islamic extremists stop Catholics celebrating Mass, November 13, 2014, at

[5] The Jakarta Post, Two churches in Yogya, C. Java survive arson attacks, at

[6] The Jakarta Post, Church told to shut down After Arson Attack, July 23 2015, at

[7] The Bogor Presidential Palace is one of six Presidential Palaces of Indonesia; it is located in the city of Bogor. The main presidential palace is located in Jakarta, but in early 2015, Jokowi announced that he would perform his presidential task mainly in the Bogor Palace.

[8] The Jakarta Post, “Jokowi ‘must do more’ on intolerance: Komnas HAM,” December 1, 2015, at

[9] The Jakarta Post, “Thousands leave Aceh after Church Burning,” October 15, 2015, at

[10] Reuters, “Indonesia’s Aceh to close churches after pressure from Muslim groups,” October 18, 2015, at

[11] Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia 1945, Art. 28J (2)

[12] Nadirsyah Hosen, “Human Rights Provision in the Second Amendment to the Indonesian Constitution from Shari’ah Perspective,”  The Muslim World (2007), Volume 97, p. 218.

[13] See the Blasphemy Law I case, Constitutional Court decision no. 140/PUU-VII/2009; the Blasphemy Law II case, Constitutional Court decision no 84/PUU-X/2012; and the Interfaith Marriage case, Constitutional Court Decision No. 68/PUU-XII/2014.

[14] Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia 1945, Art. 18 (2)

[15] Law No. 23 of 2014 on Regional Government, Art 10 (1).

[16] Id. Art 251(1) & (3).

[17] Joint Ministerial Regulation of Minister of  Religious Affairs and Minister of Home Affairs No. 9 of 2006 & No. 8 of 2006 on the Guidelines for the Regional Head to Maintain Inter-religious Harmony, To empower the Inter-religious Harmony Forum and To regulate the building of Houses of Worship.

[18] The Supreme Court has authority to review those governmental regulations not reviewed by the Constitutional Court. But the Supreme Court’s institutional capacity has been seriously weakened by the erosion of professional standards and corruption.


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