By Ross B. Taylor
Many of the one million Australians who holiday in Bali each year were shocked when they recently learned of a proposal by some members of Indonesia’s national parliament that the production and sale of alcohol throughout the entire country should be banned.
Fortunately, the parliament voted down the motion with Bali authorities and tourists sighing in relief; for now.
What was not reported however is throughout the archipelago a number of provinces and cities had already decided to introduce their own bans or restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. Not so much that the effects of excessive alcohol consumption can be severe on any community, but because Islam takes an uncompromising stand towards alcohol and forbids its consumption.
The banning of same-sex relationships has also been introduced in some provinces despite Indonesia being very accommodating of gay people for many years.
And herein lays the challenge that is now emerging for Indonesia as we witness the activities of hardline Islamic organisations such as HIT, MIUMI and the Islamic Defenders Movement - or FPI – in a country that is renowned for embracing a ‘moderate’ practice of the religion that dominates this nation of some 265 million people. And these groups have some powerful friends. In recent years Saudi Arabia has injected large sums of ‘aid’ money into the construction of Mosques throughout Indonesia, and also have provided funds for the establishment and operations of Islamic schools in the poorer parts of Indonesia; a program that Australia initiated some years ago but will close this month.
Fortunately for our region, Indonesians have generally dismissed the more radical groups with the major religious organisations embracing a model whereby Indonesia is not only a (mostly) secular state, but one that also respects all religions, and importantly the critical role that women play in everyday life, including in government and business.
With the promotion of a new Governor in Jakarta – a city that has a population of almost 16 million people – two years ago, the opportunity to galvanise the larger population into a more hardline approach to their faith was sown. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as ‘Ahok’, became governor following the election of the then governor, Joko Widodo as president.
Three years ago when I first met Deputy Governor Ahok over lunch in Jakarta, he impressed me hugely. Direct, honest, intelligent and visionary. I even joked with him that he may like to come ‘down under’ and become our Prime Minister.
But what was fascinating, if not odd, given Indonesia is home to the world’s largest population of Muslims, was this man was not only of Chinese decent, but was a Christian; something that does matter in Indonesia despite the nation’s reputation as a tolerant state.
As Governor of Jakarta, Ahok has been tough and is making a difference to this sprawling city and its people, but he has also upset many poorer residents by closing down local slums, and many in the broader community by his ‘directness’. Then several weeks ago he made a comment that Indonesia’s head Islamic clerical body (MUI) declared as being blasphemous against Islam.
Here was the trigger the hardliners needed. Whilst the majority of Indonesians do indeed take a moderate approach to their religion, they also take religion (of any kind) seriously, and could not accept a public figure who allegedly insulted Islam.
Australians first saw the impact of this incident when last month, as a result of a 200,000 strong and sometimes violent demonstration in Jakarta against Ahok, the president’s visit to Australia was postponed.
A second rally held in earlier this month saw an astonishing turnout of almost one million people calling for the jailing of the governor. Members of the broader population were now being bound-together through the affront caused by this Chinese-Christian leader against Islam.
The issue was further complicated by Agus Yudhoyono, the son of the former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wanting to stand against Ahok in next year’s gubernatorial elections. So whilst the Yudhoyono family and supporters were not the cause of these massive protests, they certainly were not disappointed to see their rival in dire trouble.
For Jokowi (as the president is known) the position is complex and dangerous. To have his friend Ahok formally convicted of blasphemy (a criminal offence in Indonesia) would see him removed from office with a probable jail sentence, and inevitable condemnation of Indonesia from much of the western world.
Yet should the court decide that the charges of blasphemy be dismissed, it would play directly into the hands of the hardliners as the nation’s Muslim population would then be galvanised against the governor, and also a ‘weak’ president.
The likely outcome is for Ahok to be convicted of blasphemy and possibly jailed, thus strengthening the position of Jokowi and for the time-being neutralising the radical elements that would need another ‘Ahok- moment’ to maintain the momentum for their ultimate agenda.
The implications for Australia are considerable. As Donald Trump steps up his anti-China rhetoric, a stable, democratic and secular Indonesia is even more important for Australia and our region.
For many of us here in Australia however, the conviction of Ahok – whose trial started this week - would simply mean we can now get back to our major focus this Christmas holiday: Bali and plenty of Bintang beer whilst sitting on Kuta Beach.
Ross B. Taylor AM is President of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)
13th December 2016.
(An edited version of this article was published as an Opinion piece in The West Australian Newspaper on Tuesday 6th December 2016)