Indonesian President Joko Widodo has blamed political opponents for the violence that marred an otherwise peaceful protest by Muslims in Jakarta demanding the arrest of the city’s governor.
Police on Friday fired tear-gas at protestors who were trying to meet Jokowi to demand the prosecution of Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for remarks he made in September which some Muslims considered to be blasphemous.
“We regret the event at night when the protestors should have disbanded but instead turned to rioting,” Jokowi said. “We see that [the protest] has been exploited by political actors seeking to take advantage of the situation.”
One person died from an asthma attack following the clashes, which broke out at night after most of the estimated 100,000 demonstrators left peacefully, police said.
Jokowi urged the public to remain calm and said that the case involving Basuki would be investigated promptly and transparently.
In a video that made rounds on the internet last month, Basuki said his opponents in next year’s gubernatorial election had used a verse in the Quran to deceive voters and prevent him from winning another term.
The text in question is Surah Al-Mai’dah verse 51, which many Muslims in Indonesia interpret as prohibiting them from electing non-Muslims as their leaders.
Blasphemy is defined in Indonesia as “publicly expressing hostility to, misusing or disparaging any of the recognized religions.” Many, including Muslims, dispute that the governor did in fact do this, but the hardliners disagree.
“Ahok must be arrested, not just questioned,” said Munarman, a spokesman for the Islamic Defenders’ Front.
The protestors gathered at the Istiqlal mosque, and then marched through the city’s main streets to the city hall and the nearby presidential palace.
Police estimate the number of protestors to be around 100,000. About 20,000 police and soldiers were deployed to deal with any potential violence.
The crowd, many wearing white shirts and white skull caps signalling Islamic piety, chanted slogans criticizing Basuki and waved banners calling for the governor’s arrest.
“This is about our faith,” said Muksin Tanjung, a 23-year-old protestor. “We want Ahok to be sent to jail and stripped of his job.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla met some of the protestors and promised that the police would investigate the case.
Basuki is seeking another term and is backed by President Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle in the election scheduled for February 15, 2017.
He was not in his office on Friday as he is on three months’ leave to focus on campaigning.
Police have warned that Muslim extremists could exploit the rally to spread chaos.
“We call on people to protest peacefully,” national police chief Tito Karnavian said.
“We don’t want events in the Middle East like Syria and Iraq to happen here,” he said.
Basuki, the Muslim-majority city’s first ethnic Chinese governor, who is also a Christian, has a reputation for an abrasive speaking style that has ruffled the feathers of city officials and other politicians.
He has also made enemies for evicting poor residents living near riverbanks and relocating them to low-cost apartments to make way for urban renewal.
He has apologized for the Quran remarks, but his expression of remorse failed to appease more hardline Muslims.
Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose son Agus Harimurti is a contender in the gubernatorial election, has urged legal action against Basuki.
“There should be no impression that Ahok is above the law,” Yudhoyono said.
Under Indonesian law, blasphemy is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Amid concerns about rising tensions, the government on Thursday blocked 11 Islamic websites that it accused of spreading religious and ethnic discord.
Ethnic Chinese have borne the brunt of social unrest in Indonesia, partly because of their perceived wealth.
Riots at the height of the Asian economic crisis in 1998 in the capital targeted Chinese-owned businesses and contributed to the downfall of autocratic president Soeharto after 32 years in power.