Why is Indonesia’s Christian Gov on trial for blasphemy?
Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is being prosecuted for blasphemy, an offence that carries a five-year jail term in Indonesia, over remarks he made about the Quran. The comments sparked widespread anger in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and the case is now seen in part as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia. But critics say it is also about politics as the governor’s foes whip up anger to reduce his support.
Who is on trial?
Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, is Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and a member of the country’s tiny ethnic Chinese minority. The 50-year-old has won huge popularity with his no-nonsense style and determination to clean up Jakarta, an overcrowded, disorganized and polluted metropolis of 10 million. But he has also faced constant opposition from hardline Islamic groups, who dislike a non-Muslim being in charge of Indonesia’s capital. He is running for election in February.
How did this start?
During a campaign stop in September, Purnama told a crowd they had been “deceived” by his opponents who used a Quranic verse to try to put them off voting for a Christian. The speech went viral, angering moderate and conservative Muslims alike who considered the remarks offensive. Purnama apologized but Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body declared the remarks blasphemous. In November more than 100,000 Muslims swarmed Jakarta in one of the largest mass demonstrations seen in the capital in years as hardliners burnt cars and clashed with police, demanding Purnama face justice. President Joko Widodo vowed to swiftly resolve the case, and police officially declared Purnama a suspect for blasphemy.
Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but officially only six faiths are recognized. Under tough laws dating back to 1965, anyone who insults these religions or deviates from their beliefs can be charged with blasphemy and jailed. Critics say today the laws are exploited to persecute minorities, like Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, and in some cases, even atheists have fallen foul of the legislation. In 2012, a man was sentenced to two-and-a-half years prison for writing “God does not exist” on Facebook.
Who else is involved?
The race to run Jakarta-Indonesia’s financial and political capital-has been a launch pad for the presidency and is always closely watched. But this election, fuelled by the blasphemy controversy, is shaping up as a key battleground for Indonesia’s most powerful political factions. Purnama is running against two Muslim opponents: the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and a popular exeducation minister backed by 2014 presidential runner-up Prabowo Subianto. Another key player is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline Muslim group that has spearheaded the grassroots campaign against Purnama. Their political heft and credentials as moral enforcers has been burnished by the scandal.
The FPI and other Islamic groups have vowed to maintain pressure until Purnama is prosecuted. While rights groups fear the campaign against Purnama could further erode Indonesia’s reputation for pluralism and have urged police to drop the case. Widodo too is feeling the pressure. He has blamed “political actors” for the instability and staged high-profile visits with military and political leaders to broadcast an image of control. But in the hours before a December rally, 10 people were detained on murky allegations of treason. — AFP
Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama