INDONESIA – Islamists demand removal of Christian Governor


Police in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation are deciding this week on whether to pursue a blasphemy case instigated by hardline Muslims against the Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed “Ahok”. Now that he has been formally named as a suspect, prosecutors will be able to charge him for blasphemy. If convicted he will face up to five years in prison.

Police said they would not detain the governor despite calls for his arrest from Islamist groups, but barred him from leaving the country during the investigation. They also recommended that the case be tried in an open court.

The trouble started when a social media user edited and subtitled a video of Ahok’s speech but omitted a key word in the subtitles so it appeared the governor was criticising the Koran rather than his rivals. The video went viral and incensed moderate and hardline Muslim groups alike. Police are investigating the social media user and have questioned up to 70 witnesses in the case against Ahok.

As religious tension simmers and President Joko Widodo tries to keep control of security, a decision to drop the case could spark further mass protests led by hardline Muslims against not just Ahok but also Widodo, who is seen as a key backer of the governor.

In the biggest protest Jakarta has seen in years, more than 100,000 Muslims marched to the presidential palace in Jakarta against the governor this month, calling for the resignation and prosecution of Governor Ahok and urging voters not to re-elect him in February. The protest turned violent, with a faction assaulting police. One protester was killed, more than 100 protesters and 79 police officers were injured.

The Islam Defenders Front (FPI), which organized the demonstrations against him, filed a police report against Ahok alleging blasphemy. Habib Rizieq, spiritual leader of the hardline FPI, said they may march again depending on the outcome of the police hearing.

As a Protestant Christian, Ahok is the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta in 50 years as well as being ethnically Chinese, a minority which faces discrimination in Indonesia. He is currently running for re-election as governor on an anti-corruption platform.

Ahok was accused of blasphemy by Islamists after he said that a verse of the Quran which hardliners say prohibits Muslims from voting for non-Muslims does not in fact prohibit them from doing so. He has since apologized for the comments.

Ahok, once hugely popular for his tough, reformist approach to running Jakarta, has seen his support plummet amid the controversy. However, opinion polls show  he remains ahead of his two rivals and around a third of voters remain undecided.

Ahok told reporters: “This is not the end, there will be a court process which we hope will be open. We will still take part in the election.”

Those backing Ahok for the February 2017 election, in which he is running for re-election as governor of Jakarta on an anti-corruption platform have pledged they will continue to support him. He has not been barred from the February governorship election, in which he is seeking a second term.

Protestors accused Indonesian President  Widodo of trying to protect Ahok, who is a key ally of the president and from whom he took over as governor of Jakarta in 2014. At that time there were protests about a non-Muslim governing the city.

Widodo, who has tried to distance himself from Ahok, has repeatedly called for calm and met with top religious, security, and political leaders to discuss the issue.

“We want to remind everyone that this country is one of diverse ethnicities, religions, races and languages,” Widodo said in a speech to security forces. Indonesia recognises six religions and is home to several minority groups that adhere to traditional beliefs.

Widodo has urged police and the military in all parts of the archipelago to step up security as incitement to violence spreads on social media. Two attempted attacks on a church (in which a child died) and a Buddhist temple in Borneo have highlighted religious divisions in the country, though authorities have not linked the events to Ahok’s case.

Human rights activists say a decision to pursue the case against Ahok could set a precedent for persecution of religious minorities. The ease with which Islamic hardliners have been able to use such a minor incident to seriously jeopardize a man’s political career is staggering and shows the sway that such hardline views exercise over many people even in Indonesia, which is normally considered a less extreme Muslim country.

Even if the true reason for the attack on Ahok stems not from what he said about the Quran but from a desire to impede his anti-corruption policies, the fact that his opponents could use a charge of blasphemy as a weapon is a serious injustice and a threat to an open and free society in Indonesia.

ACN Malta