Sunday, December 4, 2016

Blasphemy charge reveals fault lines in Indonesian democracy

Professor Tim Lindsey

The controversial decision of the Indonesian police to continue criminal proceedings for blasphemy against the Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama, known as Ahok, reveals deep fault lines in Indonesian society. The huge crisis that has now engulfed his campaign for reelection is complex but clearly reflects two serious problems at the heart of Indonesian democracy.

The first is the rise of religious intolerance among Indonesia’s 80 percent-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 to warn about rising religious intolerance towards unorthodox Muslim groups and Christians while former 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 in Indonesia 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, in fact, far more convictions for blasphemy than under the 32 years of Soehartos’ rule. Most of these were at the behest of MUI, Indonesia’s conservative Council of Ulama (Islamic religious leaders), an NGO that acts an umbrella group for Muslim groups.

Reinventing itself from the regime puppet it had been under Soeharto, this secretive organisation quickly became an assertive national 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. Indonesia. Many – including law enforcement officials – are now confused about its status and think of it as state agency

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

Ahok, a double-minority Chinese Christian, is by far the most prominent and powerful figure to face possible of prosecution for blasphemy. The massive and violent demonstration against him that gridlocked Jakarta on 4 November and forced President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) to cancel his state visit to Australia nonetheless fits the pattern.

On 11 October MUI issued an ‘opinion’ condemning Ahok for comments made on the election trail.   Ahok, is known for blunt and often  unguarded remarks, said that voters shouldn’t be fooled by ulama using a  verse of the Qur’an to claim that Muslims should not take non-Muslims as their leaders.

When transcribed to a website, the reference to ‘using’ was dropped, making it seem Ahok was suggesting Muslims could fooled by the Qu’ran. MUI said that either version insulted Islam - and that is enough to constitute blasphemy under Indonesian law.

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

Last week, the police announced they planned to proceed with the blasphemy case against Ahok, despite real debate among Muslim scholars about whether the remark was reasonable or not.

Now prosecutors must make a final decision about the charges Ahok should face and whether the evidence is sufficient.  Given the huge pressure on law enforcers from hardliners, it is likely he will face trial for blasphemy. Jokowi has already said as much, saying he ‘wants the nation to watch’.  Ahok will probably face additional changes of ‘causing feelings of hatred in the community’, a back-up charge often used to ensure conviction if blasphemy fails for technical reasons. 

There is a real possibility Ahok will be convicted, at first instance at least. Judges in recent controversial cases, like the Jakarta International School child abuse case and the Jessica Wongso muder case, have seemed afraid to make a decision against public sentiment as presented in the media, regardless of what the evidence says.

And that would suit Yudhoyono, as his son, Agus, is running against 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 that he is back in the game. This why the gossip raging in Jakarta has it that Jokowi’s claims that the riots were instigated by ‘political actors’ is a reference to Yudhoyono.

This reveals the second faultline. In a sense, the religious issues are only part of what this crisis is about.  At another, deeper, level, it is really about ruthless elite competition for power. Ahok was Deputy when Jokowi was governor of Jakarta.  The two have been very close. Until the blasphemy crisis erupted, 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, and 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 the powerful position of governor of Indonesia’s capital has become a high-stakes proxy war between three of the most powerful men in Indonesia: President Jokowi, former president Yudhoyono, and former presidential candidate Prabowo.

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

Tim Lindsey is Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor at Melbourne Law School and co-editor of ‘Religion, Law and Intolerance in Indonesia’ (Routledge).

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