It may be interesting to try to “explain” Indonesia, and in particular to show how this “improbable” country of 250 million inhabitants distributed over more than 17,000 islands has managed to retain its unity whereas most other multi-cultural countries are threatened by chaos when not in the midst of it. However, in order to continue to preserve tolerance in Indonesia, we must learn from the past. 


What must be first emphasized is the wisdom of the country’s founders: Indonesia was established on the basis of a unique political compromise, between its Moslem majority and its non-Moslem minorities entrenched in several parts of the country. The compromise, set on independence in the Piagam Jakarta (1945), was that Islam would not be the state religion, but that the state would nevertheless be religion-inspired. This realistic compromise was formulated ideologically in the five principles of the Pancasila (Oneness of God, Humanism, Democracy/Deliberative consensus, Nationalism and Social justice) which added to the national motto, Unity in Diversity (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) constitute the foundation of the Indonesian state and nation.

It was a moderate system: nationalism was softened by humanism; religious belonging and practice were kept vague; and the reference to social justice was mild. All principles were furthermore linked to Indonesian notions and habits while also referring to “universalist” notions such humanism, socialism, spiritualism and “open” nationalism.

No less importantly, this Indonesian system (Pancasila and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) enabled a multi-layered identity, with nationhood on top and all other layers (religion, ethnicity, chiefdom, language) virtually on the same level. Thus there was no contradiction between being at once Balinese, Indonesian and Moslem or Javanese, Christian and Indonesian. Compare with Europe where a European identity has difficulty coexisting with, say, a British and Moslem identity.

The suppleness of the system has enabled Indonesia to survive as a state for 70 years and to presently appear as arguably the most successful indigenously multicultural country in the world.

This success was helped, however, by a set of favorable conditions:

  • In spite of hiccups (revolts of Darul Islam, Kahar Muzakar, Ambon etc), the struggle for Independence relegated religious and ethnic identity to a secondary role.

  • Outside regions such as Aceh, the pervading culture did not emphasize religion as a marker of social identity. Ordinary people’s religious attention was focused on local ethnic rites. Their participation to politics took place through chiefs/clerks/rajas, who represented them at the level of the center (Jakarta). Uneducated, they did not, as such, have access to holy books and ignored theological notions, the knowledge of which was the realm of a small number of clerks and priests –Kiyai and ulema for Moslems, mostly foreign priests for Christians, and pedanda high priest for Hindus. Under such circumstances, most people were but nominal followers of the faith they were supposedly affiliated to. Customary law mattered more than religious law. Notions such as pagan (for Christians) or kafir/infidel (for Moslems) were of little relevance if not unknown. People would mingle without hindrance. In Java, Christians and Moslems would pray together with the bedug drum of the mosque; or young Catholics ask to be circumcised with their Moslem friends. All would share the same ritual food. And some moved from one religion to the other –usually when marrying.

In past Javanese tradition – still alive in Bali in its original form – the notion of “otherness” is alien. What matters are one’s deeds (karma), not one’s faith, and the ultimate goal is to achieve, not “paradise” proper, but Union with the Divine- both mystically during life, and “cosmically” upon death, when the soul is expected to melt into the cosmos.

Today’s Javanese have embraced an open brand of Islam that has had little impact on their worldview. Many still emphasize in their behavior on what is “common” to all religions rather than what differentiates them. These people -called abangan if commoners, and priyayi if members of the elites- are often nominal Moslems, or even Christians. To them, faith is irrelevant compared to mystical attempts to unite with the divine. It is frequent to hear them say that “all religions are the same” or to be proud of the fact that several religions coexist in their family.


“Religion is like a shirt, if it does not suit us, we can change it with a new one”, a friend once told me.


It is this open approach that has enabled Islam to smoothly penetrate Java: the 14th and 15th century missionaries of Islam did not hesitate to use puppet-show theater (wayang) and epic stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata to spread the tenets of their religion. Similarly, the cult of Moslem saints has enabled the passage from ancestors’ cult to Islam without anyone objecting to it.

Even when relatively more mainstream, the brand of mystical Islam prevalent among members of Sufi brotherhoods such as Naqshabandiah or Qadiriah remains highly tolerant of other cults and traditions. Those brotherhoods make up the core of the Nadhatul Ulama, the main Moslem organization of Indonesia (60 million followers). Last but not least, even a reformist Islam such as the one advocated by the other great Islamic association, Muhammadiah, has long given up any intention to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. In fact, both Nadhadul Ulama and Muhammadiah advocate an “Indonesian Islam” (Islam Nusantara), which most of its intellectuals see at odds with –in the words of Azyumardi Azra—the “international” brand of Islam presently spreading from the Middle-East. Tolerance in Indonesia, in other words, prevails.

Yet, today, this whole political-cum-cultural-cum religious system is under threat for several reasons:

  • Transformation of the living environment: urbanization – estimated to be 60% of the population – together with related activities. This weakens traditional links and traditional transmission of knowledge.

  • Formal education: in the last thirty years, Indonesia has passed from a stage where most students did not go beyond primary education to one where the majority will soon be completing secondary education. While this increases the “autonomy of the individual”, this has a number of perverse effects -in particular the literal reading of religious texts (similar to what happened in Europe with Reformation). To this must be added the fact that the educational system has tended to approach religion in a normative way and to emphasize religious “signs” rather than “spiritual” content. All this leads to a new emphasis on religious identity.

  • These developments take place alongside novel modes of foreign influences: Wahabism from Saudi-Arabia, Hisbut Tahrir from Jordania, Hindu reformism from India, aggressive Evangelical movements from the US etc. These influences break the hold of tradition and introduce the roots of religious fundamentalism. For example in Java, a so-called pemurnian (purification) process of Islam is sweeping aside all syncretism and threatening the resilience of old tolerance. It can indeed be argued that pemurnian is not wrong in itself, but it should certainly be accompanied by explanations and by the diffusion through teaching of the modern concept of tolerance –one based on the recognition and acceptance of differences, supported by law, rather than on the indifference to differences.

If nothing is done, religion, which was until twenty years ago but a minor vector of social identity, will quickly turn into its paramount component. We already see among common people Christians and Moslems, or Hindus and Moslems separating from one another in their social life and constitute increasingly separate communities.

The main challenge of preserving tolerance in Indonesia is therefore to further reinforce its original concept of open-citizenship and to prevent religion from becoming the main determinant of identity, a development which could have unforeseen political consequences – or already has. The Pancasila system is supple, though. And Indonesian politicians, be they Moslem, Christian, Hindu, or other, are aware of the issue. But really, the power lies in the everyday citizen and their openness to embrace ‘the other’.

Did you like this article? Read more from historian Jean Couteau’s monthly column in Mystery, Myth and Magic. Or, why not subscribe to our e-newsletter or magazine (Indonesia only) to stay up to date!

Jean Couteau

Jean Couteau

An observer of Bali for over 40 years, Jean Couteau is a graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and former lecturer at the Denpasar Institut Seni Indonesia. He is a reputed specialist on Balinese culture, having authored: Puri Lukisan (2000), Un Autre Temps: Les Calendriers Tika de Bali (2004) Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali (2013, with Georges Breguet), and Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali (2018) – to name but a few. He is a multilingual writer, contributing for Indonesia’s national paper, Kompas, with his column “Udar Rasa” published in the Sunday cultural page (in Bahasa Indonesia). He also contributes a monthly cultural piece for NOW! Bali.