Religious Harmony in Indonesia: The Source of Tolerance

by Nur Aqmarina Ade Puspasari

Indonesia has a large population of 257.9 million people (2017), the fourth largest population in the world. The total population is divided into several tribes with different local languages, more precisely there are 1,340 ethnicities including Javanese, Sudanese, Batak, Ambon, Bugis, etc. There are an estimated 736 regional languages. To further complicate matters, even people who come from the same ethnicity or tribe might belong to different religions.

In Indonesia there are many officially recognised religions in the country. Primarily Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. According to the results of the government census in 2010 87.18% of Indonesia’s 237,641,326 people are Muslim. 6.96% are Protestant, 2.9% are Catholic, 1.69% are Hindu, 0.72% Buddhist, 0.05% Kong Hu Cu, 0.13% Other and 0.38% skipped the question or were unasked. From these facts we can see Indonesia’s diversity.

So, how does Indonesia remain united despite all the differences that exist?

This can be answered by looking at the basic ideology of Indonesia as a state: Pancasila.

The idea of Pancasila comes from Indonesia’s founding father, Soekarno, who understood that one of the most important building blocks of a strong state is unity. In fact, Pancasila was codified before Indonesia won its independence in 1945. Through Pancasila this maritime country of 17,504 islands, 1,340 tribes, 736 regional languages, and 6 religions united and worked together. Pancasila consists of two words: ‘Panca’ meaning five, ‘Sila’ meaning principle. It brings together five complimentary principles.

  • The First principle is “Belief in the One and Only God.”
  • The Second principle is “A Just and Civilised Humanity.”
  • The Third principle is “A Unified Indonesia.”
  • The Fourth principle is “Democracy, led by the Wisdom of the Representatives of the People.”
  • The Final principle is “Social Justice for all Indonesians.”

Despite Indonesia being the country with the biggest population of Muslims in the world, and the fact that Soekarno was also Muslim. Soekarno refused to make Indonesia an Islamic State, adopting republicanism as the form of government, with the first principle “Belief in the One and Only God” as the basis for that republic. This may seem like a contradiction from the outside. However, the first sila (principle) has perhaps lost its true meaning in translation. The meaning is not an exclusive belief in God, but rather the value of belief according to each individual. This calls all people to respect the differences of beliefs and put unity as the top priority above any religious disagreement.

The Official Motto of Indonesia is “Bhinuka Tunggal Ika.”

It comes from an old Javanese poem and is best translated as “Unity in Diversity.” This quote is contained in the official Indonesian emblem, and reflects the belief that Indonesians must understand the differences that exist, and unite. This motto is introduced to Indonesians in childhood through family, school, and in the community. It is why we have several national holidays that are based on different religious celebrations. There is respect and freedom for each to follow their own God and engage in their own religious activity.

Photo Credit: ‘Borobudur temple Park, Indonesia: Perforated Stupas‘ by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas