Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Asia Watch: "Blasphemy" controversy threatens minorities

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Michael Shannon


When Indonesian President Joko Widodo launched his presidential bid in 2014, the then Governor of Jakarta passed the reins to his deputy and former running mate Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama. Like the popular "Jokowi", Ahok is widely credited for making significant changes and improvements in the teeming, chaotic city, including better public transportation, pedestrian access and free education for poor residents.

Based on his record in office, Ahok remains the front-runner to win another term as Governor in elections next February, but his one liability is his identity - ethnic-Chinese and Christian. In this context, some loose, though well-intentioned comments about the Koran in an edited video clip went viral on social media - enough to incite a furious reaction from Islamist groups who have long chafed at having a non-Muslim heading the nation's capital city.

Ahok quickly apologised and said the video and his statement had been distorted. However, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) ruled that the statement was blasphemy and filed a report against Ahok with the National Police's Criminal Investigation Department for religious blasphemy.

A massive street protest on November 4 attracting a 150,000-strong crowd marched toward the Presidential Palace while shouting "God is great", demanding that authorities prosecute Ahok. There were scattered chants of "Kill Ahok" during the day but the rally was largely peaceful until dark, when some splinters of the rally became violent, with 350 people injured, two cars set alight and one elderly man dying of an asthma attack.

Behind the scenes is an attempt by Islamist activists led by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to take the city back from Ahok on racial and religious grounds. Although not the force it was a decade ago, the FPI is still capable of mobilising large numbers of devout Muslims on hot-button issues; this despite the efforts of Jokowi in meeting with Muslim leaders from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah and the MUI to head-off a large scale protest. (Even so, reports on the day said demonstrators were paid between $5 and $10 plus food and transport to join the rally.)

Pitted against Ahok politically are two tickets, one headed by the Democratic Party's Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The second is led by Widodo's former Education Minister, Anies Baswedan, who jumped to the opposition Gerindra Party after he was dismissed from the cabinet in August.

There have been suggestions that comments by Yudhoyono prior to the protest, in which the former president allegedly asked all Muslims to stage the rally if demands to prosecute Ahok were not fulfilled, encouraged the massive turnout and served to benefit his son's campaign - a charge he has strongly denied.

After hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses and experts during a 10-hour closed-door case screening, Police did indeed bring blasphemy charges against Ahok on November 16, a move that may jeopardise his re-election bid.

Jokowi has reiterated that he is not taking his friend Ahok's side."Since the beginning I have said that I would not intervene in any legal issues," he said.

Athough Ahok has expressed confidence that an open trial will clear his name, Islamist groups appear intent on both driving him from office and asserting the primacy of Islam in the national political structure. This concerns Human Rights groups who seek a review of the 1965 blasphemy law, which they say is at odds with Pancasila, the philosophical bedrock to a Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion. Largely dormant for decades, the statute was used to convict more than 100 people during the Yudhoyono Administration.

The tenor of the protest was another reminder that minority groups are still vulnerable, notably the ethnic-Chinese - still mindful of the way they were targeted in riots that preceded former President Suharto's fall from power in 1998 - and Christians.

In recent days, an explosion outside a church in East Kalimantan, Borneo on November 13 wounded four children; courtesy of a molotov cocktail thrown by a man riding on a motorbike, who was later arrested. It is only the latest in a series of extremist-fuelled attacks. In July, a suicide bomber was shot dead by police after trying to attack a police outpost in Solo, Central Java; while in August, an 18-year-old teenager attempted a suicide bombing at a church in Medan but failed to detonate the explosive. He was arrested after stabbing a priest in the church.

Mainstream mass membership Islamic organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah have tilted to the centre and called on their members not to join any future protests against Ahok, which the President himself has dismissed as "a waste of energy". But the sway these leaders have over those with Islamist sympathies is now an open question.

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