The governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is on trial for blasphemy, accused of insulting the Quran during his re-election campaign. At first glance, the case is political, an attempt to influence the upcoming vote for governor. The case has much deeper implications, however. It is ultimately a test of Indonesia’s democracy and its commitment to a tolerant and open form of Islam. Much rides on the outcome of this trial.
Basuki, who is popularly known as Ahok, was lieutenant governor when his boss, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was elected president of Indonesia. He was elevated to the top slot in November 2014, becoming the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta in half a century. In addition to being a Christian, Ahok is an ethnic Chinese who comes from a rural district far from Java, where Jakarta is located. In other words, the governor has three ready strikes against him if opponents wish to challenge him on religious or racial grounds.
Unfortunately, Ahok provided religious hardliners with cause when he allegedly insulted the Quran during a campaign speech in September. In fact, he said that religious conservatives — who chaffed under the fact that a non-Muslim governor oversaw Islamic offices as part of his portfolio — had misquoted the Quran in their opposition to him. The video and transcript of those remarks were edited, distorted and then distributed via social media to inflame public sentiment.
Those same hardliners then demanded that Ahok be tried for blasphemy, a sentence that carries a five-year jail term, rallying hundreds of thousands of the faithful to demand justice. That call was backed up by the issuance of a fatwa by the Indonesian Ulema Council calling for a trial. As the crowds grew in size, the authorities expedited their investigation and quickly filed charges, a move that prompted Ahok’s lawyers to allege that proper procedure had not been followed. Judges agreed to fast-track the hearing, but even that would not assuage the hardliners. It is reckoned that as many as 750,000 people took to the streets in December, marking the largest religious gathering in Indonesian history. The trial itself has continued under siege, with the venue moved to the Agriculture Ministry for additional security and 2,500 police officers deployed to keep the peace.
Ahok has denied any intent to blaspheme, saying that “I know I have to respect the holy verses of the Quran.” For his part, Widodo has charged “political actors” with being behind the protests. Widodo must walk a fine line. A Muslim, he has to be sensitive to any hint of blasphemy or insult to the Quran or Islam. At the same time, however, he is an outsider like Ahok — his rise to power and prominence was the result of hard work; he was not part of any established political machine. Widodo also has big plans to develop Indonesia and to do that he needs capital. Those funds will come from two sources: the Chinese population that has dominated Indonesia’s economy and China itself. Widodo must be able to assure both that their money is safe and that Indonesia respects all of its ethnic groups.
While it is widely known that Indonesia is the biggest country in Southeast Asia, with a population of 260 million people spread across a vast archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, it is less well-known that the country is also the world’s largest Muslim country, with just over 87 percent of the population — or 226 million people — following the Islamic faith. But the practice of Islam in Indonesia has always been tolerant, with respect for the many faiths that make up the national population. Indeed, Indonesia’s Islam, along with that of Malaysia, has been held up as a counterexample to the extreme variants that launched jihad in the Middle East and Central Asia.
That does not mean Indonesia does not have its extremists; sadly, its recent history is scarred by several terrorist attacks. But they have been exceptions to the norm. Ahok’s case and the fiery denunciations that have been launched at him suggest Indonesia’s history of tolerance and acceptance may be coming to an end.
Small hard-line Islamic groups like the Islamic Defenders Front and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia are increasingly vocal. They have formed an Islamist coalition called the National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa and have pursued an aggressive campaign against Ahok. They have reached sufficient prominence to force Widodo to engage with them; when he failed to meet their leadership during a November protest, the group turned violent. Widodo joined prayers with the group in December, adding a veneer of legitimacy to their protests and their cause.
To their credit, the majority of Indonesians appear to recognize the stakes. Opinion polls show Ahok and his running mate gaining support over the course of the trial, with observers crediting the “sincerity” of his comments at the trial as responsible. Polls also show that the public believes his ticket has a better command of social and economic issues.
That sort of practical thinking has dominated Indonesian politics in recent years. Islamic extremists are a minority in the country, even though they are quite vocal. We hope that intelligence and tolerance continues to guide the Indonesian public.