In 2014, little-known politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama became the first non-Muslim governor in the history of Indonesia.
Purnama, known by the nickname Ahok, was celebrated by the middle class constituency for cracking down on corruption and improving public transportation. Ahok was seen as an example of Indonesia’s growing acceptance of their national motto: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.” Unity in diversity.
Today Ahok is on trial for blaspheming the Koran. If convicted, he could face anywhere from two years probation to five years in prison. Before the blasphemy accusations, though, Ahok was considered the overwhelming favorite to be re-elected governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s largest and most influential city. As of yesterday, Ahok conceded the election to his opponent.
“He is a good man. He has served the people of Jakarta so well. He is now being defamed. Oh my God, it’s so hard,” a Muslim supporter of Ahok named Nidya told the BBC.
The accusations started during a campaign speech when Ahok encouraged voters not to be deceived by what he called a misinterpretation of a Koranic verse stating Muslims cannot be ruled by non-Muslims. An edited video of Ahok’s speech went viral and sparked outrage from conservative Muslim groups.
“[Ahok’s statement] was fodder for the conservative groups to attack the governor,” Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, an Islamic scholar who founded the Liberal Islamic Network, told the BBC. If the person who said that was an Islamic leader with credibility it would be fine, but he is not. This is Ahok, a Christian assuming a high-ranking position as governor, and he produces such an awful statement. He ignores that we have a rising trend of conservatism in Indonesia today, he should have known that.”
This surging nationalistic presence in Indonesia is a familiar global trend. From England and Brexit, to the surge of the hard right in France, to the “America First” mentality, many democratic countries find themselves torn between encouraging diversity and the desire to protect the national identity or security of their country. In Indonesia, tensions run between both religious and ethnic groups. For Ahok, both of these apply; protesters mock his Chinese heritage, a minority group that has faced severe persecution in Indonesian history, along with his Christian faith.
An unidentified woman told the BBC “There was violence because of politics and we, the Chinese-Indonesians, became the targets. Lots of Chinese girls were raped. We still don’t feel comfortable living in Indonesia. We can’t relax and need to always be on guard.”
Some of Indonesia’s largest Muslim groups have ordered its followers not to participate in the protests against Ahok, but hardline groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have grown in influence.
Religious scholar and FPI spokesperson Ulama KH Misbahul Anam believes this is because while the Indonesian value of religious freedom is important, it only goes so far.
“When Christians celebrate Christmas here we do not disturb them…because they have the right to practise their religion” Anam said. “But the president can never be non-Muslim.”
Just yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence praised the country for its example as a predominantly Muslim nation striving to model religious and ethnic diversity. And there’s much to be celebrated in the fact that a Christian governor was elected in the first place. However, Indonesia continues to be one of the top 50 hardest countries for Christians to live and for many what’s happening to Ahok is a reminder that things are still very much in flux for believers there.
“We need to pray for the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, who is on trial for what Muslims are calling blasphemy, which is ridiculous,” Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook. “He’s the first non-Muslim governor of the Indonesian capital in more than half a century. They’re coming after him because he’s a Christian.”