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Indonesia must guard against religious intolerance

Two-year jail term for the outgoing governer of Jakarta for blasphemy against Islam could harm stability in world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 1:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 12:02am

The incoming governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, was already facing divisions caused by his use of Islam to win a bitterly fought election against the Chinese Christian incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Purnama. The task of healing those wounds to Indonesia’s unity, forged through religious tolerance and pluralism, is now much harder with the harsh punishment of Ahok for insulting Islam during his election campaign. A jail sentence of two years shocked observers expecting judges in a district court to hand down a more lenient penalty to calm dangerous communal tensions.

The question now is what this will mean to social harmony and politics in the world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation. The prosecution wanted only a probationary sentence. The outcome and reaction revealed the extent of social and religious division. The judges, who could have imposed a sentence of five years, tried to steer a middle course of two years between the maximum and leniency. This angered hardline protesters, some of whom demanded the death penalty. Many Ahok supporters wept at the ruling, which prompted calls for repeal of the blasphemy law, with critics saying it was increasingly being used to target minorities.

Jakarta’s ‘Ahok’ concedes heavy defeat in governor race

Though a moderate Muslim and respected academic, Baswedan was backed by hardline Islamic groups, who seized on a statement by Ahok that they claimed was blasphemous, organised huge rallies and told voters only a Muslim should be allowed to hold public office. Ahok denied any intention of insulting Islam, but the court said he showed no remorse. An ally and preferred choice of President Joko Widodo, whom he succeeded as Jakarta governor, Ahok was tipped as a future president. Baswedan is backed by the former general and defeated presidential candidate Probowo Subianto. Ahok and Widodo have established reputations for fighting corruption, and secular politics. Ahok was also seen as a competent administrator.

The worry now is whether the forces unleashed by this sorry saga will re-emerge when the presidential elections come around in a couple of years. For the sake of the stability and progress of the country and the region, it is to be hoped not. But those who used the religious card will be tempted to do so again.