Blasphemy charge reveals real fault lines in Indonesian democracy

Author

Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was unable or unwilling to stop the rise of Islamists during his 10 years in power, contributing to growing intolerance in Indonesian society seen today. Photo by Akbar Nugroho Gumay for Antara.
Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was unable or unwilling to stop the rise of Islamists during his 10 years in power, contributing to growing intolerance in Indonesian society. Photo by Akbar Nugroho Gumay for Antara.

 

The controversial decision to continue criminal proceedings for blasphemy against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama reveals deep fault lines in Indonesian society. The crisis, which has engulfed his re-election campaign, is complex but reflects two problems at the heart of Indonesian democracy.

 

The first is the rise of religious intolerance among Indonesia’s 80 per cent-plus Muslim majority. The second is the manipulation of that intolerance by the small group of elite politicians who dominate Indonesian politics.

 

Indonesian reformers began warning of rising religious intolerance towards unorthodox Muslims and Christians while ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in office.

 

Regarded internationally as a sincere democrat and — as Australian diplomats usually put it — “basically decent”, Yudhoyono played a key role in pushing the army back into the barracks after Soeharto’s fall in 1998. His weak spot, however, was conservative Islamists, known as “hardliners”. He seemed unable, or unwilling, to do anything to oppose their rise.

 

In the decade of Yudhoyono’s presidency (2004-2014) there were far more convictions for blasphemy than under the 32 years of Soeharto’s rule. Most of these were at the behest of MUI, Indonesia’s conservative Council of Ulama (Islamic religious leaders), a non-government body acting as an umbrella group for Muslim organisations.

 

Reinventing itself from the regime puppet it was under Soeharto, this secretive organisation quickly became a champion of conservative Muslim values. Yudhoyono backed it, saying it should have a “central role” in defining religious orthodoxy and help form state policy on religion, with the “tools of state” “doing their duty” to implement its fatwas. Many are now confused about its status and think of it as a state agency.

 

A pattern has emerged of MUI branches issuing fatwas against minority religious groups. Often this is followed by protests against the group, often violent, usually provoked by hardliner vigilante groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The police stand back at first, before arresting members of the target group days later. They are then tried for blasphemy on the basis of the fatwa, and are usually jailed.

 

Jakarta’s Governor, a Chinese Christian known as Ahok, is by far the most prominent and powerful figure to face possible prosecution for blasphemy. The huge, violent demonstration against him that gridlocked Jakarta on 4 November and forced President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo to cancel his state visit to Australia nonetheless fits the pattern.

 

On 11 October, MUI condemned Ahok for comments made on the election trail. Ahok, who has a reputation for blunt and often unguarded remarks, said voters shouldn’t be fooled by ulama using a verse of the Qur’an to claim Muslims should not take non-Muslims as leaders.

 

When transcribed to a website, the reference to “using” was dropped, making it seem Ahok was suggesting Muslims could be fooled by the Qur’an. MUI said either version insulted Islam: enough to constitute blasphemy under the law.

 

Technically MUI’s opinion was not a fatwa but it made no difference. The violent protest involved the usual hardliner vigilante groups, groups opposed to evictions Ahok has ordered in his struggle to clean up Jakarta, and others put off by his “straight-talking style” (often a euphemism for anti-Chinese sentiment).

 

Last week, police announced they would proceed with the blasphemy case against Ahok, despite debate among Muslim scholars about whether the remark was reasonable.

 

Now prosecutors must decide on the charges Ahok faces. Given the huge pressure from hardliners, he is likely to be tried for blasphemy. Jokowi has already said as much, declaring he wants the nation to watch. Ahok will probably also face charges of “causing feelings of hatred in the community”, a back-up often used to ensure conviction if blasphemy fails.

 

There is a real possibility he will be convicted, at least at first. Judges in recent controversial cases, such as the Jakarta International School child abuse case and the Jessica Wongso murder case, seem afraid to decide contrary to public sentiment as shown in the media, regardless of evidence.

 

That would suit Yudhoyono as his son, Agus, is challenging Ahok in the gubernatorial race.

 

For Yudhoyono, furious with Jokowi for belittling his legacy and worried about his own Democrat Party’s fading clout, his son’s victory would be a clear signal he is back in the game. This why the Jakarta gossip has it that Jokowi’s claims the riots were instigated by “political actors” refer to Yudhoyono.

 

This reveals the second fault line. In a sense, the religious issues are only part of what this crisis is about. At a deeper level, it is really about competition for power. Ahok was deputy when Jokowi was governor of Jakarta. The two have been very close. Until the blasphemy crisis, Ahok was clear favourite to win, with high approval ratings as governor. Now he might lose.

 

The third ticket in the race is former education minister Anies Baswedan. He is backed by the party of Jokowi’s failed presidential rival, the former general and one-time Soeharto son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto.

 

In other words, the election for governor of Indonesia’s capital has become a high-stakes proxy war between three of the country’s most powerful men: the president, a former president and a former presidential candidate, Prabowo.

 

It appears the embattled and utterly pragmatic Jokowi might cut his close friend Ahok loose to save himself. If he does, the hardliners will have won. Again.

 

This article was originally published in The Australian.