A high profile trial is about to start in Indonesia. On Tuesday (13/12) incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Cahaya Purnama (better known as Ahok), a Christian of Chinese descent, will visit the Jakarta Court for the first day of his trial. Ahok is prosecuted for blasphemy, an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of five years in Indonesia. After the Vietnamese iced coffee murder case, this is another huge court case followed not only by the Indonesian people, but also by the international community that is concerned about rising intolerance in Indonesia.
Background of the Blasphemy Case
When giving a speech (and Q&A) in Kepulauan Seribu, off the coast of Jakarta, in late September 2016, Ahok told the audience: "don't be deceived by people who use Surat Al-Ma'idah, verse 51 [for political gain]". Surat Al-Ma'idah (verse 51) is a Quranic text that says Muslims cannot have a non-Muslim leader. Being a Christian, ethnic Chinese person, it is already a sensitive issue for stricter Muslims that Ahok made this statement.
However, matters become worse. A Facebook user (named Buni Yani) uploaded a manipulated video on the social media platform together with a text that deliberately portrays a different picture of the scene at Kepulauan Seribu (and therefore Buni Yani has been named a suspect for violating Article 28 of the Electronic Information and Transactions Law that carries a maximum prison sentence of six years).
Through the content of his text and by cutting off the first part of the sentence that is expressed by Ahok, Buni Yani made it look as if the Jakarta Governor told his audience "not to be deceived by Surat Al-Ma'idah, verse 51". Hence the video made it look as if Ahok claims that the Quranic verse itself is misleading. This is a serious matter in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
Since 1965 Indonesia has a blasphemy law that makes it possible for authorities to prosecute people who make statements that are regarded an insult to religion or who express statements that are socially unacceptable (for example promoting atheism). For example, about four years ago a civil servant in Sumatra was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison after declaring himself an atheist on social media.
Reaction of Hardline Muslims to Ahok's Manipulated Video
The spread of the manipulated video ignited hatred and animosity among Muslims, particularly hardliners. The fact that it involves a manipulated video and the fact that Ahok had already apologized to those who are offended by his (real) statement, did not matter. Hardliners and political opponents of Ahok used this case as an excuse to demonstrate against Ahok and demand his arrest. In Indonesia, religion is perhaps the best tool to provoke public outcry.
It may not be a coincidence that the campaigning for the 2017 governor election had just started. In February 2017 local Jakarta citizens will vote for the new Governor. In this race incumbent Governor Ahok (together with his running mate incumbent Deputy Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat) compete with the pairs (1) Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno, and (2) Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) and Sylviana Murni. Based on opinion polls Ahok's popularity has declined since he has been involved in this scandal.
Three demonstrations were organized in Jakarta between October and early December 2016 (as well as in several other big cities in Indonesia), spearheaded by the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI).
The second one, staged on 4 November 2016, was a demonstration that ended in clashes between protestors and Indonesian police. Perhaps up to 200,000 Muslims gathered in Central Jakarta on that day to demand the arrest of Ahok. The third rally (on 2 December 2016) was technically not a demonstration but a "prayer together" in Central Jakarta and went - contrary to expectations - peacefully, but still managed to put a high degree of pressure on Indonesian authorities.
Reaction of Indonesian Authorities to Hardline Muslims
Amid pressures the National Police Criminal Investigation Department charged Ahok with articles 156 on harassment and 156a on blasphemy in the Indonesian Criminal Code. It is assumed that Jakarta Police and the Attorney General Office went ahead with Ahok's investigation and trial in an effort to keep matters calm. If these institutions would ignore the case, then it could have caused a much higher degree of unrest on the streets of Jakarta and other Indonesian cities.
In response to the demonstrations, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, regarded a friend of Ahok, said the trial needs to be transparent and concluded swiftly. Although we expect that Ahok will not be found guilty by the Jakarta Court we are concerned to what extent Indonesian authorities (whether the executive, legislative or judicial branch) are under the influence of (intimidated by) radical Islamic voices. therefore, Ahok's trial can be considered an important test case.
Although Ahok is Governor of Jakarta, he was never elected by the people to become Governor. Initially, Joko Widodo was Governor of Jakarta with Ahok as his deputy. However, after joining (and winning) the 2014 presidential election, Ahok was, by law, promoted to the position of Governor. Similar to Widodo, Ahok gained popularity (particularly among Jakarta's middle class-up and elite) due to his no-nonsense style and determination to clean up Indonesia's capital city (an overcrowded, disorganized and polluted city where some 10 million people reside).
Poll Indonesia Investments:
Do you think the court will find Ahok guilty of blasphemy?
Voting possible: -
- No, I don't think so (64.9%)
- Yes, I think so (22.8%)
- I don't know (12.3%)
Total amount of votes: 114
Rising (Religious) Tolerance in Indonesia?
Long before this case there have surfaced concerns about religious (in)tolerance in Indonesia. Over the past few years there seems to be growing discrimination and attacks aimed against religious minorities (including Christians and certain streams in Islam) as well as a recent wave of intolerance against the nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Regarding discrimination against minority religions or streams, authorities remain rather passive, unwilling to take a hard stance. When it involves the LGBT community, Indonesian authorities join the discriminatory acts. In early 2016 the Indonesian government ordered all instant messaging providers - for example Line, Twitter and WhatsApp - to remove gay emoticons (such as same-sex couples holding hands or making kiss gestures at each other).
Hardline organizations such as the FPI advocate the implementation of sharia law in Indonesia and use force to shut down churches, mosques that are run by non-Sunni Muslims as well as nightclubs and bars. Rarely perpetrators are arrested.
Earlier this week (on Tuesday 6 December 2016) hardline Muslim group Defenders of Ahlus Sunnah (PAN), forced a Christmas service at a convention center in Bandung (West Java) to stop even though the organizers of the Christmas service had arranged all necessary permits. A positive sign is that Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil ordered PAS to send an apology to Bandung's Christian Revival Service. If PAS ignores this request, then the Bandung administration may ban PAS from conducting any activity in Bandung. Critics argue, however, that this reaction is too little, too late in the bigger picture of rising intolerance in Indonesia.