The outgoing governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, has been sentenced to two years in prison. His crime wasn’t corruption or bribery. It was “insulting the Quran.” This is a bad sign for Indonesia’s democracy, and an ominous warning for Christians in Indonesia.
Ahok, the Christian incumbent, was up for re-election against a Muslim candidate when charges were brought against him. Ahok’s purported crime of insulting the Quran happened during a speech he gave to the Thousand Islands regency in September 2016. In that speech, he said voters were being deceived into thinking the Quran prohibits Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim politician.
The incident sparked mass protests. Tens of thousands of Muslim Indonesians flooded the streets demanding Ahok’s prosecution and clamoring for voters not to cast a ballot for him in the Jakarta election, which was held on April 19. It worked. Ahok was not re-elected.
That’s where the story gets interesting. Although state prosecutors had dropped the charges, instead opting for a suspended jail term, a panel of judges in the North Jakarta District Court unanimously declared Ahok guilty. An opinion columnist at The Jakarta Post made this observation:
The law gives judges freedom to build their verdicts based on the evidence, testimonies and their own convictions. But the fact that they preferred to take into consideration the testimony of witnesses, including clerics who had openly expressed hatred against Ahok and even sought his death, over statements of witnesses who did not see any intention to insult Islam on the defendant’s part, shows signs of a miscarriage of justice in this trial.
Indonesia’s judiciary showed a clear preference in the case for the prosecution, and for carrying out Islamic law instead of considering the evidence and meting out justice. In a country where Christians are the minority, that’s troubling. But what’s most disturbing is that the judges’ decision is a capitulation not only to Islamic law but to the demands of the mob.
The Threat of Riots Pushes Leaders to Capitulate
Greg Fealy, a professor of Indonesian politics, told CNN that “the fact that Ahok was charged at all was really a product of massive street demonstrations that frightened the government into acting.” This is the point. The government is afraid that if it doesn’t react harshly to charges of blasphemy, its majority-Muslim population will riot.
Maybe they learned this from watching what goes on in other Muslim-majority countries. Ninety percent of North African and Middle Eastern countries have blasphemy laws. Pakistan is one of the worst—a conviction can earn the offender the death penalty. But worse is Pakistan’s problem with vigilantism, harassment, threats, and attacks on people merely accused of blasphemy. In April, a university student was killed by an angry mob after he was accused of posting blasphemous materials online.
Last year, the Pakistani army had to be called in to deal with protests over the execution of a man who had murdered a governor who was critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Iran and Saudi Arabia have executed several apostates or blasphemers in the past two years, and a mob beat a woman to death in Afghanistan after she was wrongly accused of having burned a Quran.
Hardline Islamic Groups Gain Traction in Indonesia
In Indonesia, where the national motto is “Unity in Diversity” and the government is officially secular, tolerance was once preserved by the dictator Suharto, who was ousted in 1998 in favor of a democratic system. Since that time, numerous hardline Islamic groups have emerged. Among those is Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a far-right Islamist group, responsible for organizing the rallies against Ahok and agitating for his prosecution.
Moderate Muslims in Indonesia are increasingly concerned that these hardline groups are gaining power and political influence. In March, three former leaders of a banned religious movement called Gafatar were arrested for blasphemy and treason, and could face life in prison.
FPI’s growing influence has moderate Muslims and Christians worried that their country’s long history of religious tolerance and moderation is being pushed to the sidelines. In its place, a hardline fundamentalist adherence to Sunni Islam is gaining popularity. According to a Pew poll, 72 percent of Indonesian Muslims think sharia should be made the official law in their country.
This has obvious consequences for religious minorities. In Indonesia, roughly 87 percent of the population is Muslim, whereas Christians make up only about 10 percent. According to Pew, “Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, the highest overall restrictions on religion were in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, where both the government and society at large imposed numerous limits on religious beliefs and practices.”
Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, although it is often left out of conversations about Islamism because of its relatively low rates of terrorism. Jakarta is the country’s largest city, with more than 10 million residents, and the greater metro area is a megalopolis of more than 30 million people. Ahok’s conviction is a reminder that Indonesia is an important front in the global rise of Islamism.
One of the largest cities in the world just convicted its mayor for insulting the Quran. The world should be paying attention.