At the beginning of March, a historic meeting between Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took place where the monarch’s visit was viewed as an opportunity to present Indonesia as a forward-looking and religiously tolerant nation.
President Jokowi invited leaders of the country’s major religious organizations to meet King Salman. In the 30-minute gathering, Jokowi stated that “in this meeting are representatives of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism…This is very important for inter-religion relationships in Indonesia and is a very valuable asset for the Indonesian nation and state in contributing to peace.”
These visits are part of Indonesia’s public diplomacy efforts to promote the country as democratic, multicultural and multi-religious, despite problems of freedom of religion and belief following reports of discriminatory state legislation, physical violence, and stigmatisation of minorities.
For many ethnic Chinese, in addition to terrorism and the status of minorities, another issue that has received less attention internationally has been the recognition of “Confucian religion” (Kongjiao, 孔教) as an official religion in Indonesia.
According to Yang (2005), Chinese traders were active in the lands that now constitute Indonesia as early as the third century BC. As with most migration movements, the introduction of foreign cultures, beliefs, and values was adopted differently throughout the archipelago. In this regard, rather than becoming a well-organised community religion or social movement, anti-Chinese attitudes in some regions meant that Confucianism remained a loose individual belief and practice until the mid-1900s.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Confucian Temple in Surabaya, Indonesia.
While formally recognised as one of Indonesia’s six official religions by the 1960s, inconsistency in applying religious law has resulted in many Confucians self-identifying as Buddhists. For example, the de-recognition of Confucianism in 1979 meant that Confucians became part of the ‘others’ category on official reports or had to register as Buddhists or Christians. In the 2000s, the national census also did not permit respondents to choose Confucianism as their religion, making the status of Confucianism in Indonesia unclear.
By 2006, Confucianism was again officially recognised as a religion by the Ministry of Religion, when it was announced that discrimination on matters of citizenship, nationality, religious rituals and marriage would cease. Even though many under-50 Indonesian Chinese were unable to speak Chinese, Confucianism retained a strong presence in communities by being passed down through clan structures and family ethics.
Increasing bilateral ties with China also improved the status of Confucianism. Politically, Chinese Indonesians have gained greater representation and participation in Indonesian institutions as Chinese Indonesians are seen as playing a potential cultural and commercial ‘bridging’ role in the relationship (Setijadi, 2016). The introduction of the Confucius Institute in Indonesia was understood as a landmark in the Sino-Indonesian educational cooperation, promoting the exchange in education and culture between the two countries.
As well as reinforcing China’s cultural influence and Indonesia’s role as an open and inclusive state, Confucianism in Indonesia demonstrates the challenges of spreading and adapting Confucian thought to different legal, social, and cultural contexts.
In that case, while King Salman’s visit was focused on Islamic terrorism, the inclusion of Confucianism in meetings and events highlights that times are slowly changing as Confucian thought becomes more accepted internationally.