Ahok’s Case: Indonesia’s Pluralism is still in Peril

UPDATE: In May 2017, Ahok was sentenced to two years imprisonment on blasphemy charges. Click here to read more. 

Three years ago today, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published one of its most important reports in recent times: Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago. The report accomplished three things: it illustrated that religious intolerance in Indonesia is now a nationwide phenomenon, contrary to popular myth, and is not confined to particular parts of the archipelago; it demonstrated that it affects everyone, of all religions – Christian churches are closed down or attacked, Ahmadiyya Muslim mosques and homes burned, Shi’as displaced, Buddhist temples targeted and Confucianists vulnerable, as well as pluralistic-minded Sunnis, and atheists; and it proved that the last President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was responsible for giving the radical Islamists the green light and fuelling the erosion in the values of the ‘Pancasila’, Indonesia’s state philosophy that protects freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all six recognised religions.

Three years on, what has changed?

Indonesia has a new President, Joko Widodo, who in his instincts and values is far more sympathetic to Indonesia’s traditions of pluralism than many of his rivals or his predecessor. He has shown no desire to use the Islamist agenda for political advancement, he has given the Islamists much less political cover than his predecessor, and he has a track-record – as Governor of Jakarta and as Mayor of Solo – of standing up to the Islamists when required.

However, beyond that little has changed. Indeed, incidents of religious intolerance continue to rise, year on year. On 10 January, the Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) published a report detailing a steady increase in violations FoRB in recent years. The Setara Institute’s latest report documents 270 incidents of religious intolerance and 208 incidents of violations of FoRB in 2016, an increase on previous years. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, yet it rejected theocracy at its foundation and adopted the Pancasila. Rising religious intolerance poses a threat to Indonesia’s strong tradition of religious pluralism.

“Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, yet it rejected theocracy at its foundation and adopted the Pancasila. Rising religious intolerance poses a threat to Indonesia’s strong tradition of religious pluralism.” 

Ahok’s Blasphemy Case

The greatest challenge, symbolically, to Indonesia’s pluralism is the trial of Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Known by his nickname ‘Ahok’, he is a double-minority – an ethnic Chinese and a Christian, and therefore Indonesia’s most prominent ethnic minority politician. Tomorrow he stands for re-election as Governor in the first round of the local elections. In a bid to derail his campaign he has been charged with blasphemy, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years, despite a lack of credible evidence against him.

The court case against Ahok was filed by several conservative Islamic groups after a statement he made on his re-election campaign trail went viral via an allegedly doctored YouTube video. Ahok quoted a Quranic verse on 27 September while addressing concerns that his political opponents may use the verse to discourage people from voting for him as a non-Muslim, but was falsely accused of criticising the verse itself, prompting allegations of blasphemy.  An estimated 500,000 Muslims turned up to a number of rallies in November and December 2016 to protest against his supposed blasphemy. The police officially charged Ahok on 13 November 2016 and his trial began on 13 December 2016.

Blasphemy Laws Put Pluralism in Peril

Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have long been a cause of injustice and division, and are misused for political reasons as well as religious intolerance to silence dissent, criticism or debate. They suffer from a very low threshold of requirements for evidence or proof of intent.

Ahok’s case is one of a number of recent blasphemy cases. A lecturer at the prestigious Universitas Indonesia, Ade Armando, was charged in December 2016 for writing on Facebook that: “God is not an Arab. Surely God would be happy if His scripture was read in the dialects of Minang, Ambon, China, Hip-hop, blues…” He could face up to 11 years in jail on two charges, under the blasphemy law and the Information and Electronics Transaction Act. Three leaders of a spiritual movement known as ‘Gafatar’ are currently on trial for blasphemy in East Jakarta District Court. For the first time, a prominent Islamist leader, Rizieq Shihab, who leads the vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which is responsible for violent attacks on religious minorities and many church closures, has also been charged with defamation of the Pancasila and blasphemy. Rizieq Shihab is one of the most prominent leaders of the campaign against Ahok.

“This trial calls into question the strength of the rule of law in Indonesia and if Ahok were convicted, it would mark a significant step backward for the country.”

Ahok’s case has brought this to the world’s attention, exposing the threat these laws pose to Indonesia’s pluralism. Ahok has a track record of promoting pluralism and as an ethnic and religious minority he is a symbol of Indonesia’s diversity. The blasphemy case against him is without basis and politically motivated in order to prevent his re-election tomorrow. It is an indication of rising religious intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The court must acquit him, the National Police Chief should drop all charges against all other suspects, including Rizieq Shihab and Ade Armando, and the Indonesian government should cease using the blasphemy laws and consider amending or repealing them. This trial calls into question the strength of the rule of law in Indonesia and if Ahok were convicted, it would mark a significant step backward for the country.

The promotion of freedom of religion or belief in Indonesia must be prioritised, in line with the country’s strong tradition of religious pluralism. Three years and a new President on, Indonesia’s pluralism is even more in peril than ever.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader

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