Jakarta governor’s jailing tests Indonesian unity

Rallying cries by conservative Muslims for the prosecution of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama have culminated in his imprisonment, sending shock waves through minority communities in Indonesia.

A court in the Indonesian capital on Tuesday sentenced Jakarta’s outgoing governor Basuki to two years in prison for blasphemy over remarks he made about the Qur’an.

The verdict has raised concerns about religious intolerance in the Muslim-majority country

Basuki, Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese Christian governor, was immediately sent to prison even though he said he would appeal.

“Our dreams as members of the minority died along with justice,” said Arnold Priadi Bolang, a motivational speaker and Christian.

“I’m losing hope of serving this country,” he said.

His bleak sentiment was echoed by many others.

Thousands of Basuki’s supporters flocked to the Cipinang penitentiary where Basuki was sent to after the conviction to voice support for him and demand his release. Some of them pushed the prison’s gate demanding to see him.

Basuki lost a re-election bid in last month’s gubernatorial election run-off to former education minister Anies Baswedan, despite securing most votes in a three-way first-round poll on February 15.

During an official function in September, Basuki told local residents that his opponents had “lied” to them by saying the Qur’an prohibited them from voting for a non-Muslim governor.

A video of his speech became available online and led to hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims demanding his prosecution at rallies in the months that followed.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, but Christians make up about 10 per cent of its 250 million people.

“The verdict paves the way for intolerance to grow because you can effectively bring someone to court using religious pretext and end their political career,” said Ray Rangkuti, a political analyst and director of Lingkar Madani Indonesia, a group advocating for civil society.

He said Basuki’s jailing also bodes ill for the political future of President Joko Widodo, who is widely expected to seek re-election in 2019. Basuki is seen as the president’s protege.

Some analysts believed that the real target of the brouhaha was not Basuki, but Joko.

“It’s bad for Jokowi because on one hand he’s no friend of the hardliners, whose influence is growing,” Rangkuti said, using Basuki’s Chinese nickname.

“On the other hand, liberals and other pro-democracy Indonesians are disappointed with his perceived inaction in the face of intolerance,” he said.

Basuki’s election rival, Anies, was backed by conservative Muslims who wanted Basuki jailed for the perceived insult to Islam.

Once the clear favourite for a second term, Basuki saw his poll numbers fall following the blasphemy accusations. Support for the US-educated Baswedan rose after he met one of the leaders of the anti-Basuki protests, firebrand cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab.

Basuki’s supporters saw him as an effective administrator in a bureaucracy long plagued by corruption and incompetence.

But he has made enemies with his no-holds-barred remarks, sometimes using foul language.

His decision to evict slum dwellers and squatters to make way for development as part of his urban renewal programmes also sparked resentment among the poor.

Emrus Sihombing, a political analyst from Pelita Harapan University, said he believed Joko would be able to weather the political challenge.

“Indonesia’s politics is very fluid and a lot can happen in two years,” he said.

“If he continues to perform well and build infrastructure across the country as he’s doing now, he’ll get re-elected,” he said.

He also said pluralism was not threatened, saying that the court had acted independently without pressure from the government.

“It may seem like we’re breaking apart as we look at social media, but in real life, people live very much harmoniously,” he said.

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