For One Brief Moment in History, Indonesia—the World’s Largest Muslim Nation—Had a Christian Governor

Indonesia Ahok
Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama shows his ballot before giving his vote at a polling station in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Voting was underway in the election for governor of the Indonesian capital after a divisive months-long campaign in which the monumental problems facing Jakarta took a backseat to religious intolerance and racial bigotry. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Update

May 9, 2017

Jakarta’s first Christian governor, know to his supporters as Ahok, has been convicted of blasphemy against the Koran and sentenced to two years imprisonment.

The head judge for Ahok’s trial, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, proclaimed Ahok was “found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy.” Additionally, another judge involved in the case cited Ahok’s apparent lack of feelings of guilt, which has “caused anxiety and hurt Muslims.”

Ahok’s lawyer says he will appeal against the sentence. Meanwhile, Ahok was escorted via armored police van to a prison on the east side of Jakarta. His imprisonment came as a surprise to some, as prosecutors had called for a conditional sentence of two years’ probation, according to the Guardian. Despite the surprise, the two-year sentence is less than the maximum five-year sentence that prosecutors originally pushed for.

A researcher for Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono, put into words what a lot of the minority Christian population of Indonesia feel: “Ahok’s is the biggest blasphemy case in the history of Indonesia. He is the governor of Indonesia’s largest city, an ally of the president. If he can be sent to jail, what could happen to others?”

Although Ahok lost the election, his victorious rival, Anies Baswedan, is not scheduled to take office until October. In the meantime, Jakarta’s deputy governor, Djarot Saiful Hedayat, will step into the role of acting governor.


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.”

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Joshua Pease
Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.