Alexander Aan, a civil servant in Dharmasraya, West Sumatra, was beaten and charged with blasphemy after writing “God does not exist” on his Facebook page.
The response has ranged from condemnation by several international organizations to support by local citizens and the Indonesian Council of Ulema. Many people have invoked the first principle of Pancasila, the state ideology, to make the argument that atheism — and Alexander — have no place in Indonesia.
But is this really the case? Has atheism been banned by Pancasila since the dawn of the Indonesian state? Since the argument is based on the text of a legal document, let’s examine this question from a legal perspective.
The first principle of Pancasila says the nation of Indonesia shall be based on the belief in the one and only God. It is usually interpreted literally. As a result, nonbelievers, and atheists in particular, are often accused of violating the nation’s philosophical foundation. Their way of thinking is seen as incompatible with the country’s fundamental “monotheistic” tenet.
This is a naive and simplistic view of Pancasila. Interpreting any philosophy is not all about the exact meaning of the words; it is about context and the systematical connections.
In legal science there are two methods of interpretation: historical and teleological. A historical interpretation requires an examination of the historical context in which a statute was created. With teleological reasoning, it is the goal of a statute that matters most.
Historically, the first principle of Pancasila, belief in one supreme God, has been a compromise between secular nationalists, Islamic nationalists and nationalists from other religions. It had its origins in the first principle of the Jakarta Charter, the obligation to hold Muslims to Shariah law.
When the non-Muslim nationalist founders protested the charger, a compromise was reached: The belief in one supreme God was codified into Pancasila instead.
If this historical context is further analyzed in a goal-oriented, teleological way, it is evident that the first principle of Pancasila was not intended to ban atheism. It was meant to bring together the different religions of Indonesia in a fair-minded, compromising manner.
Some might still insist that every statute must be interpreted precisely as it was written. This, of course, is exceedingly problematic if you consider the six officially “recognized religions” of Indonesia: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
If the notion that the first principle requires monotheism is correct, then at least two of Indonesia’s recognized religions are obviously incompatible with Pancasila.
Hinduism is henotheistic, meaning Hindus acknowledge the presence of other gods despite worshiping only one. That is why we see many gods in India such as Ganesha, Vishnu and Shiva.
Buddhism includes no concept of a divine creator or deity; it is considered a nontheistic religion. Sometimes the words “a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned“ in Buddhist scripture are cited to support the claim that Buddhism has a creator. But a closer look at the text shows that the words refer to nirvana, not to a god.
Are Hinduism and Buddhism unconstitutional? Do they deserve no place in Indonesia? Should they be banned? Our founding fathers should have anticipated this problem.
Meanwhile, even if the misguided literal interpretation prevails, the people who lean on that to justify their stance against atheism will run into another problem.
There is another foundational passage in Pancasila that addresses religious beliefs. This one stipulates that “the belief in one and supreme God must not be forced on another person.”
This point is specific in nature, while the first principle is general. According to the legal doctrine of lex specialis, specific laws overrule general laws. This means that atheists have a right to their beliefs, and cannot be forced to espouse the views of others. Ironically, this shows that the people who try to force God on atheists are actually the ones infringing on Pancasila.
Atheism does not violate Pancasila. All Indonesians may consciously and rationally choose their own beliefs. The country’s very foundation protects their right to do so.
Jakarta Globe, written by Yordan Nugraha student of international and European law at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.