Jakarta’s feisty and ever-popular ethnic Chinese Christian Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama will soon face court on a charge of blasphemy. Whatever the outcome, Indonesia will not be same
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin by Elizabeth Kendal, Special to ASSIST News Service
JAKARTA, INDONESIA (ANS – December 1, 2016) — Having concluded their investigations, Indonesian police have named Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese Christian Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama as a suspect in a blasphemy case. Speaking to a press conference on Wednesday, November 16th, the head of the National Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (Bareskrim), Comr. Gen. Ari Dono, confirmed: “Although there are different opinions among police investigators, most agreed that the case should be settled in an open trial.”
Now that Ahok has been named, Islamic fundamentalists are demanding he be arrested and incarcerated, as is normally the case with blasphemy suspects in Indonesia. Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) spokesperson Munarman told the Jakarta Post: “Because Ahok still runs free, we have decided to stage another protest. Ahok should be jailed, it is the legal procedure. All suspects charged under Article 156 (a) of the Criminal Code in Indonesia’s history are always imprisoned.” The next protest is slated for Friday, December 2.
As tensions soar, debate swirls around whether the charge is political or religious. Ahok himself is certain he is not guilty of blasphemy. Convinced the charge is purely political, he is confident that any testing of the charge will see him acquitted. Meanwhile, the fundamentalist Islamic clerics who accused him are certain Ahok has indeed blasphemed, giving them exactly what they were looking for: a means of removing him from the gubernatorial race.
As for Ahok’s political opponents, they are merely riding the wave, exploiting Islamist outrage for their own benefit.
On February 15, 2017, Jakartans will go to the polls to elect a new governor. The contenders were announced on September 24th. It will be a three-way race pitting incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and Deputy Governor 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 favourite 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 Lieutenant General 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).
This is a high stakes election. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has even commented that it “feels like a presidential election.” In a piece entitled “Not Just Another Election” (Asian Studies Association of Australia, October 6, 2016), 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 reorganising 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 mobilisation 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 Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. 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 Reverend 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” (November 10th), 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 Islamic Sharia 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 judgement 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 the ABC. “I am a Muslim and Ahok is an infidel, that’s it.”
Mohammad Siddik from the Indonesian Supreme Council for Islamic Propagation told Hawely: “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.
Unsurprisingly, the feisty, straight-talking Ahok eventually responded. In a speech to city officials on September 27th, 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 October 5th, video footage of the speech had gone viral on YouTube and Islamic fundamentalists were claiming that Ahok had blasphemed against the Qur’an and the clerics.
On October 10th, Ahok apologised “to all Muslims and anyone who felt offended”, saying it was not his intention to slight Islam or the Qur’an. But it was in vain. Having taken up the Sharia cudgel of anti-blasphemy, his opponents were not about to put it down.
On November 1st, 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 October 11th, the day after Ahok apologised, 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 [Qur’an, 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 Qur’an.
* 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.”
Even before Ahok had been officially named as a suspect, some 100 lawyers had come forward to defend him. So as to maximise transparency, the trial will be open to the public and televised live. President Jokowi 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 proved 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 Horsono, 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.
As Hodge notes: “Indonesia had its chance to repeal its blasphemy laws — a legacy of the dying days of the Sukarno era. 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 (November 8): “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.”
Whatever the outcome, this is a watershed moment for Indonesia. The choice is between the easy task of appeasing Islamists and furthering Islamisation OR the difficult task of resisting Islamists and rejecting Islamisation.
At the very end of the ABC’s 7:30 Report video report, Samantha Hawley asks Abu Jibril, the 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,” responds Jibril, “not according to the demands of Muslims, then Muslims will get angrier. And when they get angrier, we don’t know what will happen.”
One thing we do know is that Indonesian Islamists are receiving strong support from transnational Islamists. On October 29th, 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.” And on November 4th, as Indonesian Islamists prepared to rally in the street of Jakarta, Islamic State used their messaging services to encourage their supporters to use the rally “to fan the flames of jihad” across the country.
On November 27th, the National Police hinted that some radical groups linked to Islamic State (ISIS) were planning to infiltrate the December 2 rally.
Whatever the outcome of Ahok’s blasphemy trial, Indonesia will not be the same.
Photo captions: 1) Ahok campaigning in Jatinegara, Jakarta, November 15, 2016. (Credit: Jakarta Post / Dhoni Setiawan). 2) The cleric, Alwi Wahid. Credit ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). 3) Elizabeth Kendal.
About the writer: Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She began working with the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC) in July 1999, serving as Principal Researcher and Writer from January 2002 until April 2009 when she resigned in order to work independently. Elizabethis an Adjunct Research Fellow in the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology, and the Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF). In December 2014, Wittenberg Seminary (Canada) awarded Elizabeth an honorary Doctor of Ministry degree. Since July 1999 she has published a weekly Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin to help facilitate strategic intercessory prayer, and well as routine reports containing additional religious liberty news and analysis. She is the author of two books: 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). For more information see: www.ElizabethKendal.com.
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