Decolonizing Religions in Indonesia and the Netherlands

Unravelling the Legacy of Colonialism Today

June Beckx

The persisting inequality of power structures, between non-Western inferiority and Western superiority, inherited from the colonial era first and later through imperialistic behavior of dominant groups against their weaker counterparts, still defines the religious discourse in Indonesia. Therefore, there is a need for a paradigm shift, with an emphasis on aligning concepts such as partnership and sharing.

Those were the main conclusions in a webinar, held in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Netherlands-Indonesia Consortium for Muslim-Christian Relations (NICMCR). The topic was chosen in an attempt to be engaged in the international debate on decolonization. This debate has been a hot topic among academics and cultural activists in many countries, but may still be in its infancy in Indonesia. General awareness has risen around the world that equality and mutual understanding between West and East, North and South, are imperative to enhance sustainable global development. To equalize unequal power structures, decolonization seeks to break free from the shackles of colonization, not only historically, but now, in present day politics, economics, social relations, and human life.

In the past days, Christians and Muslims, again confronted with a movement against slavery and colonization following the outcry around Black Lives Matters, have begun to question their own integrity. With the ability for self-criticism, they should be able to seriously ask themselves whether this burden from the past is not a burden on themselves, a burden that has to be shaken off in order to drop it on a just, equal, and forgiving ground for all.

It is in this light that in the 10 years of its existence, NICMCR has brought together perspectives from Indonesia and the Netherlands, from Muslims and Christians, for a better understanding of a shared history in order to prepare for a post-colonial future.

Colonial legacy

In his talk, Robert Setio mentions that in Indonesia, religion uses the concept set by the government and not questioned by people, whereas religious rights should be open to all religious streams and not only be defined by the dominant ones. The colonial character of religions in Indonesia is also evident in their failure to uncover the root causes of poverty, discrimination, and environmental crises. Religions in Indonesia tend to divert people’s attention from real world problems. Because of that, many social and environmental problems have never been properly resolved. Furthermore, the study of decolonization should also be directed at academia. There is already a changing tendency in religious studies. Interreligious studies, for instance, aim to decompartmentalize the various disciplines of religion, showing a more inclusive relationship between the academic world and community movements.

Should decolonization only be regarded as a way of undoing the chains of the colonial historical past, which was dominated by the colonizer? Speaking of dominant religious forces, Zainal Abidin Bagir divides religion into governed, expert, and lived religion, of which the first two are heavily politically constructed, giving it a narrow definition of religion. He gives an example from Indonesia, where Islam and Christianity, being the dominant religions, shape other religions in their mold. Buddhism and Hinduism were only recognized as religions in 1952, although they were there long before Christianity and Islam arrived to the Archipelago. Therefore, he says, the colonial inheritance is significant, but not the only factor and definitely not the most important. To broaden the understanding of decolonization, one has to include today’s phenomena of imperialism. We have to break free from the imperialistic tendency of forcing one’s view or interest on other weaker parties. These tendencies cover concepts of neocolonialism as well as internal colonization and run counter to equality among different identities, classes, and citizenship.

Apart from the methodological and academic discourse on decolonization, Khoirus Sa’diyah Broersma brings the debate to the ground by focusing on the so-called decolonization of the mind, a process to deconstruct our thoughts, preferences, and values derived from a colonial way of thinking. The Netherlands, for instance, is the country most proud of its colonial history. A former Dutch prime minister even lauded the VOC mentality. Of the many indigenous cultural objects that were shipped to the Netherlands and are now in Dutch museums, the accompanying descriptions invariably mention the view that these indigenous people were primitive savages who needed to be civilized according to Dutch (Western) standards. In Indonesia, on the other hand, she continues, the patterns of colonialism are still very much present. Colonial characteristics, projected onto modern life, are still seen as better, more beautiful, giving more status. Look for example at the adoration of white skin and the well-selling whitener lotions.

From dependency and charity to partnership and sharing

Frans Wijsen explains that the topic of religions was chosen because it points to the core of NICMCR. Being a consortium for Muslim-Christian relations, the importance lies not so much in the general colonial history, but more in the very construction of religion and the image Christians and Muslims form about each other in their general concept of religion. Once the Dutch imposed their view of religion on Indonesia, but now it is the time to put the focus on the concept of partnership, borne out of a need for each other. This is also acknowledged by Karin van den Broeke. This topic, she explains, comes close to the heart of Kerk in Actie, (KiA), an organization called to serve churches and partner organizations worldwide by sharing what is received on the basis of equality and reciprocity. In the Dutch Christian perspective on our shared history, she says, there is a variety of positive signs. There is an increasing awareness that wealth in the Netherlands is built on a history of slavery. However, on the congregational level there still is a lot of ignorance. When they hear of the poverty stricken, charity immediately comes to mind. But charity creates dependency, while sharing aims for transformation of injustice and inequality. Indonesia has been multireligious for centuries. For the Netherlands, it would be helpful to take the Indonesian point of view against the background of Islam and Christianity. Revealing our differences could be the starting point for a sustainable relationship and partnership. Decolonizing religion means to liberate all of us from oppressing beliefs and attitudes.

Decolonizing religion and the concept of Human Rights

We cannot deny that tensions between religions are often linked to the absence of human rights. Many indigenous communities are stripped from their religious beliefs and rituals, from their land, from their culture. Therefore, NICMCR questioned whether they should not include indigenous voices in their debate? Setio argues that self-criticism has to come first; we must be aware of our guilt towards others. And what other religions should feel as guilty as Christianity and Islam, especially in Indonesia. Other religious communities are looked down on as people who have yet to be enlightened. That attitude has to be changed. Adherents of dominant religions should adopt a humble attitude and not consider themselves the ultimate bearers of truth and knowledge. Even to the so-called radical people, we should humbly try to understand them, because radicalism could also be within each and every one of us. Bagir points out that indigenous religions were not recognized by the Christian Dutch in the colonial era only, but also now with the modernist tendencies in all religions, including Islam. Human rights are often considered a product from the West. In some non-Western countries, for instance, in China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, they are put in opposition to the so-called Asian values as an attempt to “decolonize” human rights. In fact, these governments replace one form of colonization with another imperialistic tendency, used to repress their own citizens. He cites two studies that contrast these practices where the authors position decolonization as a concept of moving from a state-centered enterprise to a people-centered one (Abdullahi An-Naim) or from a hegemonic to counter-hegemonic standpoint (Boaventura de Sousa Santos).


Overall, it can be concluded that decolonization is a multifaceted and vast subject that affects us all. There is decolonization of power structures occurring at governmental as well as at communal levels as well as the decolonization of the mind, collectively and individually, covering many disciplines.

As for the decolonization of religious studies, there are some promising developments. Not only by previously colonized people but also by Western scholars who try seriously to interrogate their assumptions. In Indonesia, we also see some progress, for example in the recognition of indigenous religions and customs. Nevertheless, we see that despite major changes in political regimes the old way of governed religions remains. It is apparent that the strategy of the two faces of faith is used as a political tactic, not only by the Dutch before 1945 but also by various Indonesian governments until today. Criticizing current governments in their religious governance will be the main challenge for scholars in religious studies. We should, however, not shy away from cooperating and participating in their programs, for example the so-called governmental program ‘moderation of religious understanding’ in Indonesia with its very relation to the discussion on decolonizing religion.

Decolonization of religion should not be regarded as an anti-Western trend. The rivalry and enmity between religions, which was mentioned in the forum, is indeed part of the colonial legacy, but has now taken forms of suppression of the mainstream beliefs against other religious movements. Instead of starting the debate from that angle and taking an oppositional standpoint, it would be much more productive to focus on the many collaborations between scholars and activists in all parts of the world.


  1. Robert Setio, Universitas Kristen Duta Wacana, Yogyakarta
  2. Zainal Abidin Bagir, UGM, Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies
  3. Karin van den Broeke, Protestant Church in the Netherlands
  4. Khoirus Sa’diyah Broersma, PCI-NU Belanda

Moderated by: Frans Wijsen, Radboud University, Nijmegen
Opening speech: Sahiron Syamsuddin, UIN Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta
Master of Ceremony: Amadeo Devin Udampoh, Jakarta Theological Seminary