Is Indonesia’s Governor Ahok doomed to be found guilty?

As one of the country’s most talked-about blasphemy trials kicks off, the question of creeping Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia should force authorities to consider whether religious freedom is truly alive and well. 

By Victoria Wah

It was an emotionally charged Tuesday as Indonesia’s high-profile blasphemy trial began. The governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is on trial. While he vehemently denies any intention to offend or insult the Quran, Islamic groups rallied outside of the court demanding that he goes to jail.

Purnama, also known as “Ahok,” stands accused of insulting Islam during his election campaign. He is charged with telling voters that the Quran’s Surah Al-Ma’idah verse 51 should not be used by local leaders to claim that non-Muslims must not lead Muslims. This has brought a violent public backlash, angering many Muslim citizens who have started rallies to remove the Christian governor from office.

In his opening statement in court, Ahok emphasised his respect for the country’s dominant religion explaining, “As a person who grew up in Islamic circles it is not possible for me to insult Islam”. He added that his statement was directed towards parties who had misapplied the religious text to gain a stronghold in the upcoming elections, and not the Quran itself.

Uncertain ground

This is one of many incidences where unclear laws have been used to prosecute those who “blaspheme” Islam. As Asfinawati, a lawyer who had represented a client on the same charge, stresses, “There is no official legal interpretation of what can be defined as blasphemous”. This exposes the law to selective interpretation and misuse.

As a result, there have been many arbitrary prosecutions based on dubious grounds in Indonesia. For example, in 2005, a Muslim preacher called Yusman Roy was sentenced to two years of imprisonment for reciting a prayer in Indonesian Malay. More recently, a Shiite cleric called Tajul Muluk, was jailed for four years after local authorities concluded that his teachings deviated from the traditional interpretation of Islam.

This legal uncertainty has also made blasphemy laws susceptible to political manoeuvring. According to one Al Jazeera commentator, “Many people really feel hurt by what the governor said, but also religious sentiments are being creatively used by politicians to gain support ahead of regional elections”.

Political advantage

The suggestion is that politicians have blown up Ahok’s statement to incite public backlash for his “blasphemous,” leaving the governor treading on thin ice. Being jailed for an offence with a sentence of five or more years disqualifies candidates from competing for government positions. Is it possible that his political career is suddenly over?

Given the current social pressures faced by the court, a fair and unbiased blasphemy trial is unlikely for the Christian politician. There has been a deluge of religious riots, some of which have turned violent – some of which call for Ahok’s immediate execution.

Vaessen describes the protests as an, “extremely big show of force by Islamist groups who have been gaining importance in Indonesia over the years.” As such, any judge who hears this case under this kind of pressure-cooker environment is likely to have grave concerns for their personal safety. It is hard to imagine that the court will uphold Ahok’s right to a fair trial.

The State vs. Islam

However, Ahok’s case represents a bigger issue than just politics: it highlights the insidious struggle between the State and Islam. Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998 has led to greater freedoms for all religious groups. However, an increase in the number of extremist groups is threatening the nation’s pluralism.

This means that religious minorities face growing persecution and attacks on religious freedom have more than tripled from 2008 to 2010. Incidences of houses of worship burnt to the ground and groups prevented from conducting their prayers have increased. A recent riot displaced hundreds of Shiite people and killed some of their compatriots.

This growing force of Islamic extremism has inevitably seeped its way into Indonesian politics, as seen in the last election where protests called for the eradication of the Shiite minority. Ahmad Cholil Ridwan, the leader of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, declared that, “The ruling coalition must be controlled by Islamic parties” to eradicate the Shiites. Meanwhile, Al Khaththath, the secretary-general of the Indonesian Ulema and Congregation Forum, added, “We will support any candidate who wants to make a memorandum of understanding to purge the Shiites from Indonesia.”

The voice of the majority?

Bantarto Bandoro, a defence and security expert at the Indonesian Defence University, explained that these Islamic hardliners, “perceive themselves as representing the majority. So they think that if any politician wants to become president, they must listen to their demands.” The force of Islam in politics rises.

This does not bode well for Ahok. Being ethnically Christian Chinese, his minority status gives extremists an excuse to rebel against him. And with blasphemy laws proven as an Islamic scythe to prosecute minorities, it will be very hard for Ahok to come out of this unscathed.

At the base of this problem is the fact that the previous government did not do enough to quell the flames spread by Islamic hardliners during the 2014 election. The public was actively encouraged to vote for presidential candidates who were followers of Islam with waves of propaganda, but the police did not effectively handle the problem.

What can Jokowi do?

The current government is strikingly similar. President Jokowi and his cabinet have done little to erase the black propaganda spread by Islamic extremists since the release of a heavily edited video with Ahok quoting verse 51. But what could Jokowi’s administration actually be doing?

Sidney Jones, Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, advocates that the government draws a line in the sand on this issue by taking measures to reduce growing extremism. This includes educating the public to recognise religiously inspired incitement for exactly what it is.

And in regards to the legislation being used against Ahok itself, there have been previous applications to the Constitutional Court to repeal or reform the vague blasphemy laws. If either of these could have been achieved, then it would prevent abuse of the law, while also bringing Indonesia in line with its international obligations on freedom of expression.

However, the court dismissed the moves, holding that these statutes did not pose a threat to religious freedom. Furthermore, the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Religion maintain that the current blasphemy laws, though swaddled in red tape, are still relevant to keeping social order and peace.

As Ahok faces his fate, Indonesians are at a crossroads. Islamic jingoism is seeping to the forefront of a nation who once fought to establish itself as a tolerant and pluralistic country. Although it is hard for President Jokowi to initiate reforms, a line must be drawn where religious views have overtaken the ability to be humane.