Indonesia Faces Defining Moment in ‘Blasphemy’ Protests against Christian Governor Ahok

Islamic-majority ‘model democracy’ challenged by religious-based political furor.

Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. (Wikipedia)

Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. (Wikipedia)

(Morning Star News) – Having concluded their investigations, Indonesian police have now named Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese Christian Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama a suspect in a blasphemy case. The case that has produced virulent protests will now to go trial.

Islamic fundamentalists are now demanding he be arrested and incarcerated, as is normally the case with blasphemy suspects in Indonesia. As tensions soar, debate swirls around whether the charge is political or religious. Ahok himself is certain he is not guilty of blasphemy. Not wanting to blame Islam, he maintains the charge is purely political and is confident that any testing of the charge will see him acquitted. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s fundamentalist Islamic clerics are certain Ahok has indeed blasphemed, giving them exactly what they were looking for: a means of removing him from the gubernatorial race.

Ahok’s political opponents are merely riding the wave, exploiting Islamist outrage for their own benefit. On Feb. 15, 2017, Jakartans will go to the polls to elect a new governor in a high-stakes election.


It will be a three-way race pitting incumbent Ahok and Deputy Gov. Djarot Saiful Hidayat against the Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono-Sylviana Murni tickets. Analysts are expecting a two-round contest.

Ahok, the early favorite and frontrunner, is backed by Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).
Anies Baswedan, the former culture and education minister, is backed by Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra Party and the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono is backed by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (i.e. his father’s) Democratic Party, the National Mandate Party (PAN), the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the United Development Party (PPP).

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has commented that it “feels like a presidential election.” In an Oct. 6 piece entitled “Not Just Another Election” for the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Dr. Dirk Tomsa comments: “The deep involvement of Jakarta’s most powerful party leaders in the nomination process certainly indicates that this election has implications for the national level, not least the 2019 presidential election. But apart from reorganizing power and patronage in the capital, the Jakarta poll will also yield critical insights into other aspects of electoral politics in Indonesia, especially the nature of campaigning and voter mobilization and, given Ahok’s background as a Christian ethnic Chinese, the salience of ethnic and religious sentiments among the Indonesian electorate.”

Indonesia’s fundamentalist Muslims have long opposed Ahok. Elected as deputy governor in 2012, running with Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), Ahok ascended to the governorship in the wake of Jokowi’s 2014 election to the presidency. In a foretaste of things to come, Jakarta’s Islamic hardliners – led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) – were quick to protest, vowing to resist the “kafir” (unclean), “infidel,” “devil” governor.

With early polls showing Ahok the clear frontrunner, Islamic fundamentalist clerics moved quickly to remind Muslims that it is a sin for Muslims to vote for non-Muslims, citing verses such as Sura 5:51 . . . Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies [awliya : allies/friends /guardians/leaders] . . .” And as linguist and Islam expert the Rev. Dr. Mark Durie notes, “In Indonesian translations of the verse, 5:51 is rendered, ‘do not take Jews and Christians as your leaders (pemimpin-pemimpinmu).’”

In a commentary piece entitled, “Violent Protests in Indonesia Blow an Ill Will for Religious Tolerance” (10 Nov.), Durie refers to “Ibn Kathir, an authoritative medieval commentator on the Qur’an, [who] explained this verse as follows: Allah forbids his believing servants from having Jews and Christians as allies or patrons, because they are the enemies of Islam and its people, may Allah curse them.” According to Durie, Ibn Kathir makes it clear that the only valid law is sharia (Islamic law); that only a Muslim can rule over Muslims; and that anyone who looks to an infidel for political or legal direction should be considered an infidel – an apostate.

As tensions escalated, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News film crew led by Indonesian correspondent Samantha Hawley visited the Al Furqon mosque in central Jakarta. Cleric Alwi Wahid’s message was clear: “Be careful on the judgment day,” he preached. “God will ask you, why did you choose the infidel as the leader, while I have warned you not to. Believers should not choose a non-Muslim as their leader,” he said before warning the congregation that there would be “bad consequences” for those who vote for a non-Muslim.

The believers, said Hawley, seemed convinced. “I refuse to vote for Ahok,” one man told ABC. “I am a Muslim and Ahok is an infidel, that’s it.”

Mohammad Siddik of the Indonesian Supreme Council for Islamic Propagation told Hawley: “Muslims call the people not to vote for Ahok because we are also guided by our faith, by the Koran.” He also warned that a non-Muslim being elected to the governorship could lead to instability.

Indonesian Islamists are receiving strong support from transnational Islamists. On Oct. 29, photographs appeared on social media of non-Indonesian and fully armed members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, (previously known as the al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, Syria) holding signs that read “Sentence Ahok or We Will Sentence Him with Bullets,” and of jihadists standing in front of a large wooden box labelled “Ahok’s Coffin.” On Nov. 4, as Indonesian Islamists prepared to rally in the street of Jakarta, Islamic State (IS) used its messaging services to encourage supporters to use the rally “to fan the flames of jihad” across the country.

On Nov. 27, National Police hinted that some radical groups linked to IS were planning to infiltrate a Dec. 2 rally.

Ahok’s ‘Blasphemy’
The feisty, straight-talking Ahok ran into trouble when he responded to Islamist objections to his political ascent. In a speech to city officials on Sept. 27, Ahok made light of the clerics’ objections, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to vote for me because you’ve been lied to [or fooled] with Surat Almaidah 51 [Sura 5:51] and the like. That’s your right. If you feel you can’t vote for me because you fear you’ll go to hell, because you’ve been lied to [or fooled], no worries. That’s your personal right. These programs will go forward. So you don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Follow your conscience, you don’t have to vote for Ahok.” (translation by Sidney Jones)

By Oct. 5, video footage of the speech had gone viral on YouTube, and Islamic fundamentalists were claiming that Ahok had blasphemed against the Koran and the clerics.

On Oct. 10, Ahok apologized “to all Muslims and anyone who felt offended,” saying it was not his intention to slight Islam or the Koran. But it was in vain. Having taken up the sharia cudgel of anti-blasphemy, his opponents were not about to put it down.

On Nov. 1, the Lowy Institute published an important piece by Indonesia expert Sidney Jones. In her article entitled, “Why Indonesian extremists are gaining ground,” Jones slams Indonesia’s “spineless political leaders [who] have allowed extremists to seize the momentum and foment religious hatred against the governor.” She explains how the anti-Ahok campaign “brings together violent extremists, moralist thugs and powerful political interests. And because of the latter, no one dares challenge it.” She laments that conservative Muslim opposition to Ahok is no longer merely “noise in the political background” but a serious threat to Indonesian unity and security. She wonders why no one – not the president nor vice-president nor any pluralist politician – said “Let’s stop this in it tracks,” or did anything to try to cool tempers or even defend the constitution.

On Oct. 11, the day after Ahok apologized, the Indonesia Ulama Council (MUI) – Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body – held a meeting in which they determined that Ahok had indeed committed blasphemy and should be prosecuted.

Jones elaborates: “In a statement to the media, the MUI said:
• Surah al-Maidah [Koran, chapter 5] explicitly forbids non-Muslims from becoming leaders.
• Based on this surah, ulama are obliged to convey to all Muslims that it is obligatory to choose a Muslims leader.
• Every Muslim must understand the truth of this surah as a guideline for choosing leaders.
• To say that the prohibition against making non-Muslims leaders is a lie constitutes an insult to the Koran.
• To say that ulama who use Surah al-Maidah as their evidence for forbidding non-Muslims from becoming leaders are liars constitutes blasphemy toward ulama and the Muslim community.”

Possible Outcomes
Even before Ahok had been officially named as a suspect, some 100 lawyers had come forward to defend him. So as to maximize transparency, the trial will be open to the public and televised live. President Joko Widodo wants it over in two weeks.

Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono told The Australian’s Amanda Hodge that he fears the country’s blasphemy laws have proven such an effective political tool that they will be used more frequently. “I think by next February, Ahok will be detained,” said Harsono. “I don’t think even the political forces that support Ahok can turn this around. I hope I am wrong.”

Speaking to Kate Lamb of The Guardian, Harsono said: “I have studied more than 200 blasphemy cases in Indonesia since it was written by President Sukarno in 1965. Over this 50-year period, I think there was only one case where the suspect was acquitted. I don’t think Ahok can survive this prosecution, he is very likely to end up in jail.”

According to Harsono, a newspaper editor was acquitted of blasphemy in 1968, while in 2012, Alexander Aan, a 30-year-old civil servant from Sumatra, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after he declared on his Facebook page he was an atheist.

“Indonesia had its chance to repeal its blasphemy laws — a legacy of the dying days of the Sukarno era,” Harsono notes. “The late, liberal Muslim scholar and former president Abdurrahman Wahid led an unsuccessful 2009 petition of the Constitutional Court, arguing the laws violated the enshrined right to religious freedom. His daughter Yenny says he was motivated by the escalation of blasphemy charges under successor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono [SBY].

“The Setara Institute says 15 blasphemy cases were tried from 1965 to 1998. In SBY’s 10 years in power, from 2004 to 2014, some 51 cases were tried, with a 100 per cent conviction rate.”

Pitan Daslani, a senior political analyst for the Jakarta Globe, writes (8 Nov.): “Objectively, Ahok can only be punished if proven guilty according to Article 156A of the Criminal Code, which stipulates the parameters on defamation of religion … Article 156A of the Criminal Code prescribes a maximum five-year jail term for anyone who ‘utters feelings or commits acts intentionally that [a] contains enmity, misappropriation, or defamation of a religion’ and ‘[b] has the intention to prevent others from adhering to any religion that is based on belief in one God.’ These two factors must be fulfilled to justify his perceived offense.”

While the situation is indeed dire, some political analysts believe Ahok could still manage to turn the situation around.

“Of course,” surmise analysts at Coconuts Jakarta“even if Ahok plays his cards perfectly, there is still the chance that he could lose in court and be found guilty of blasphemy, landing him in jail and almost certainly putting an end to his political career.

“But let’s not forget that Ahok is among the savviest politicians in all of Indonesia. Before he came to Jakarta, he was incredibly popular as the regent of East Belitung, a province with a much higher percentage of Muslims than Jakarta. With a heavily publicized trial, he will have a platform to not only defend himself but also essentially campaign to the whole of Jakarta and Indonesia on a nearly daily basis.

“His loose lips might have gotten him into this mess, but Ahok’s sharp tongue may yet get him out of it and ultimately win him the race.”

Watershed Moment
Whatever the outcome, this is a watershed moment for Indonesia. Indonesia will either appease Islamists and further Islamization, or it will resist Islamists and reject Islamization.

At the end of ABC’s 7:30 Report report, Samantha Hawley asks Abu Jibril, leader of fundamentalist activist group Majelis Mujahidin, what he thinks of the idea that a Christian could one day be president of Indonesia?

“If Ahok does not get the punishment he deserves, [and it’s] not according to the demands of Muslims, then Muslims will get angrier,” responds Jibril. “And when they get angrier, we don’t know what will happen.”

Originally published in Elizabeth Kendal’s Nov. 29 Religious Liberty Monitoring.” Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She is the author of Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016)See

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