Blasphemy case tests Indonesian democracy

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has never minced his words.

He has used expletives during television talk shows, publicly insulted his subordinates and even described his own religion, Christianity, as silly.

But his remarks about a verse in the Quran have stirred up outrage and landed him in legal trouble, jeopardizing his political future.

More than 100,000 Muslims marched through the streets of Jakarta earlier this month calling for his prosecution for blasphemy, a serious charge in predominantly Muslim Indonesia which can carry a maximum prison sentence of five years.

The allegations of blasphemy, which in Indonesia is defined as “publicly expressing hostility to, misusing and disparaging any of the [six recognized] religions,” stemmed from remarks made by Basuki during a meeting with Jakarta residents in September.

Basuki – better known by his Chinese nickname “Ahok” – said his opponents had used a verse from the Quran to deceive voters and prevent him from winning another term in the gubernatorial election scheduled for February 15.

Many Muslims in Indonesia interpret the text in question as prohibiting them from electing non-Muslims as their leaders.

Another major rally is planned for December to call for his detention even after police named him a blasphemy suspect, sparking further tensions.

“This is a very sensitive issue that has become a national problem,” said Djayadi Hanan, a political analyst at Sjaiful Mujani Research and Consulting.

“If it’s not handled properly, it will cause political instability,” he said.

President Joko Widodo has accused “political actors” of exploiting anger over Basuki’s remarks to undermine his government and has met various religious leaders in an effort to calm tensions.

Basuki became Jakarta’s first governor from the Chinese ethnic minority, which has been the victim of ethnic riots in the past, when he took over from Jokowi in 2014.

His ascension to the top job in the city teeming with 10 million people has been hailed as an example of Indonesia’s embrace of democracy and diversity.

The blasphemy case against Basuki, a key ally of Jokowi, is the biggest test yet for the president, Hanan said.

“There’s a mix of religious sensitivities and political intrigues to stop Ahok from winning the election,” said Syamsuddin Haris, an expert in politics at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

“I think the best way for the president is to let the law take its course,” he said. “But considering that some people are irrational, there are bound to be more protests if the court verdict doesn’t satisfy them.”

Hardline groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front have always been critical of Basuki, but their past protests against the governor failed to gain strong support, until his remarks on the Quran hit a nerve with many Muslims.

Basuki is known for his strong stance against corruption and being an effective administrator in a bureaucracy that has long been plagued by inefficiency and incompetence.

Before the blasphemy case, polls consistently showed him leading in the race for the governorship.

But he has also made enemies along the way, including officials and members of the city council who he criticized publicly, suggesting that they are incompetent and corrupt.

As part of his urban renewal programmes, he forcefully evicted squatters and slum dwellers, and relocated them to apartments where they have to pay rent and are far from their livelihoods.

Although Basuki is now facing the blasphemy charge, he is still free to campaign for his re-election, pending the outcome of the legal process, which could take months or even years.

“Our police are professional and this is not the end,” he said last week, taking his predicament in his stride. “I’m still taking part in the election and to my supporters, vote for us on February 15 so we can win outright.”

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