Indonesia’s hard-won pluralism under threat

Blasphemy charges against the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta could ignite smouldering religious and ethnic tension unless firm action is taken by the government

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 1:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 1:47am

Indonesia’s constitution was painstakingly negotiated by secular nationalist and Muslim leaders to unify an ethnically and culturally diverse nation. It guarantees religious freedom, even though 88 per cent of the 250 million population follows Islam. Blasphemy charges brought against the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, whose trial opened yesterday, therefore threaten pluralism and religious tolerance. Shrewd action is urgently needed by President Joko Widodo to calm the storm whipped up by Islamic hardliners.

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There is no better symbol of Indonesia’s pluralism than Purnama, popularly known as Ahok. A rare double minority among officials, he took over as governor of the capital in 2014 after his predecessor, Widodo, won the presidency. But conservative Muslims believe only followers of Islam should hold high office, despite the provisions of the constitution and the national motto, “unity in diversity”. His decision to hold the post in his own right by standing in elections in February has sparked protests by extremists that twice in recent months has brought at least 150,000 to the streets. Purnama, once the front-runner in opinion polls, has slipped to second behind Augus Yudhoyono, the son of a former president.

Powerful Islamic groups, believing Indonesia should be ruled by sharia law, have been increasing involvement in Indonesia’s legislative process since the transition to democracy began in 1998. Officials have been treading warily so as not to inflame passions.

Purnama’s troubles are therefore as much about politics as religion; the blasphemy claims stem from a campaign speech in which he said opponents were wrongly using a verse from the Muslim holy book to justify their position that a non-Muslim could not be the governor. He has apologised, but that has not placated those who claim he has insulted Islam.

The rise of political Islam requires a balancing act from Indonesian President Joko Widodo

If found guilty, he faces five years in prison. The courts have taken a dim view of blasphemy and almost all cases have ended in conviction. Widodo has been criticised for failing to temper the rhetoric from hardline clerics, who have been blamed for inciting hatred and inspiring terrorist attacks. There are fears that a “not guilty” verdict will spark violence against Chinese and Christians.

Widodo has accused “political actors” of exploiting the street protests, but he has to go further. An ethnic and religious tinderbox is smouldering that can be extinguished only by leaders confronting extremism and taking tough action against those behind it.