As Jakarta’s governor appears in court on blasphemy charges, there is much at stake, writes Richard Cockett

Even by the standards of Indonesia’s turbulent and vindictive politics it was an unusual, even distressing scene. Inside a courtroom, sitting alone on a small office chair in a batik shirt before a panel of judges, the governor of Jakarta was reduced virtually to tears as he defended himself against charges that he had insulted Islam.

It was the first day of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s trial for blasphemy. Known as Ahok, he was charged following remarks that he made in September during the election campaign for the Jakarta governorship. He was the deputy governor when his immediate boss, Joko Widodo (known to all as Jokowi), won the presidency in 2014, thus handing the post on to Ahok.

The governor’s alleged crime, according to the hardline Islamists who brought the charge, is that he is supposed to have criticised the Koran. Ahok, an ethnic-Chinese Christian in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, of about 250 million people, was telling an audience not to be taken in by a Koranic verse which suggests that Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders.

The case, televised live, gripped the country. Quite apart from the obvious courtroom melodrama, the proceedings go to the heart of Indonesia’s political self-identity. Unusually for a south-east Asian country, religious and political pluralism have been enshrined in the constitution ever since independence, gained from the Dutch in 1945. Despite the predominantly Muslim population, the country has traditionally been seen as a comparatively tolerant and moderate state, in which politics has operated relatively free of political influence; the big parties are arranged around political dynasties rather than ideology, let alone religion. Many Indonesians have prided themselves on this.

Indonesia has, on and off, been a close ally of the West in combating extremism, and is often held up as a model of how a country can successfully combine Islam with democracy, in stark contrast to the Middle East. Six religions – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, the last prevalent particularly on the island of Bali – are officially recognised. However, there are harsh penalties for blaspheming against any of them. If Ahok is convicted, he could face a five-year jail term.

The concern of the Ahok trial is that the country’s traditional pluralism is now being challenged by a more aggressive and organised form of political Islam. A key group behind the blasphemy charges against Jakarta’s governor is the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which organised big rallies in Jakarta to campaign for Ahok to face trial – and the fear is that Indonesia’s politicians are no longer willing to pay the political price for standing up to these powerful, radical religious interests. Indeed, in this case the allegation of blasphemy against Ahok was validated by a fatwa issued by the National Ulema Council (MUI), a supposedly moderate quasi-governmental body set up in the 1970s to mediate between the government and the Islamic community. The MUI urged calm, but nonetheless ruled that Ahok should face the legal consequences of his words.

Despite some success against straight Islamist terrorist groups after the Bali bombings of 2002, there is no doubt that religious intolerance has been on the increase in Indonesia, and Ahok’s problems are the latest manifestation of this trend. Particularly during the two-term presidency of the former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, minority faiths were all targeted by Islamist extremists, as chronicled in reports such as Christian Solidarity’s 2014 Pluralism in Peril: The rise of religious intolerance against the archipelago. This records attacks not only on Buddhists, Jews, atheists, Protestants and other non-Muslims, but also on minority Muslim groups such as the Ahmadiya, as well as the Shia community. An attack in 2011 by a mob of 1,500 people on 21 Ahmadis in Cikeusik, Banten Province, West Java, killing three and injuring at least five others, was particularly brutal and shocking.

The court proceedings go to the heart of Indonesia’s political self-identity

Worryingly, there has been little pushback against this rising tide of intolerance. Local communities have often supported the aggressors, and so local magistrates, police and other authorities have been reluctant to condemn these actions, leading to a culture of near-impunity. Those convicted of killing the Ahmadis, for instance, received extraordinarily light sentences of three to six months. None of the assailants were even charged with murder or manslaughter.

While politicians may not been personally complicit in stoking political Islam for political gain, they all know where the faultlines in Indonesia’s politics are, and at times of stress know exactly how to exploit them. As the writer Margaret Scott argues, in the past Islamist parties have not done well in elections, ‘yet many politicians, especially those from secular parties, compete to show the public that they are more devoutly Islamic than others’. The campaign against Ahok is a case in point.

Anti-Chinese, and with it anti-immigrant, sentiment can easily be fanned. During the presidential election campaign of 2014, Jokowi only squeaked home despite a huge early lead over his rival, in part because of unfounded rumours that he was a Christian Chinese rather than in fact a good Javanese Muslim. Ahok, a generally progressive and effective governor of sprawling, chaotic Jakarta, has seen his poll lead similarly diminish with these allegations of blasphemy, and more talk about his Chinese ancestry. Jokowi himself has blamed ‘political actors’ for inciting the mob mentality against Ahok. As all Indonesians know, this is dangerous, even lethal, territory.

Indonesia’s traditional pluralism is now being challenged by a more aggressive and organised form of political Islam

Notoriously, in 1998, on the fall of the dictator Suharto, mobs looted and burned Chinese-owned shops and businesses, leaving more than 1,000 dead.

But as well as historical animosities and political manipulation, there are other factors at work in this new era of militancy. There has been a rise of extremist ideology imported mainly from Saudi Arabia, as well as, to a lesser extent, countries such as Pakistan. A Saudi-funded university was founded in Jakarta in 1980 to promote the more strict and puritanical Wahhabist form of Islam, countering the Shia form that surged with the Iranian revolution. Classes are in Arabic, and women have to be completely veiled, among other strictures. This school of Salafism, which largely rejects democracy and pluralism, has grown enormously in Indonesia, often poaching youngsters from the more relaxed, liberal Sufi Islam that has long predominated across the archipelago.

Saudi Arabia plans to expand its university in Jakarta, apparently, from 3,500 graduates to 10,000 a year. It will also help set up new branches elsewhere in Indonesia, in Medan, Surabaya and Makassar. Thus, it seems, Indonesia is becoming engulfed in the worldwide confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and its own political traditions are being eroded as a result. Some local Muslim organisations have opposed the Salafis, but their influence grows nonetheless, and organisations such as the FPI have become more brazen.

And while Indonesians absorb themselves in the Ahok trial, with the political class more and more paralysed by these religious, constitutional issues, so the country’s old, equally pressing problems continue. Indonesia continues to lose its forests at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world, mainly to clear land for palm-oil plantations, despite endless promises to prevent this. Last year at least 2.6m hectares of Indonesia’s forests went up in smoke, an area the size of Sicily. Apart from anything else, the ‘haze’ that this produces is a serious regional health hazard, probably contributing to the deaths of thousands of people every year.

Jokowi promised to restore economic growth to the highs of seven and more per cent that it reached regularly in the 1990s and mid-2000s, but this has yet to materialise. Indonesia badly needs to modernise and open up its economy to compensate for the slackening Chinese appetite for its coal, oil and other raw materials. But there are still too many barriers to trade and to starting a new business. Corruption remains a problem.

If Ahok were to go to prison, it would be a big blow to the country’s traditions of pluralism. Even if he does not, some hope that this latest outrage might galvanise politicians into fighting back against those who have used the case to inflame religious and ethnic tensions. But judging by the way they have failed to tackle the country’s other burning issues, no one should expect too much.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold; The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist.

 Related Post

Leave a Reply