By Tim Lindsey
The conviction for blasphemy last Tuesday of the outgoing governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was not a surprise. It followed a common pattern for blasphemy cases in Indonesia.
When the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), the conservative peak body for Islamic scholars in Indonesia, issues a fatwa stating that an accused has committed blasphemy, Indonesian courts almost always agree. In this case, MUI condemned Ahok using a lesser form of opinion, not a fatwa, but that made no difference. It was just as decisive.
The two-year prison sentence Ahok received was also not surprising, if previous blasphemy decisions are taken as a guide. With maximum of five years imprisonment available for the blasphemy, sentences over the last decade have ranged from six months to four years. Two years is mid-range and not an unusual outcome for a conviction under Article 156a of the Criminal Code (the so called Blasphemy Law provision, really a very broad prohibition of religious defamation).
Nor is it unusual that the judges completely ignored the recommendations of prosecutors that Ahok receive a suspended sentence, rather than prison time. In fact, the prosecutors even proposed that Ahok be sentenced under another provision of the Criminal Code that carries a lighter maximum term. Judges in Indonesia are, however, not bound by prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations. They are free to ignore their requests and often do. That’s what happened in this case.
What was surprising was that the judges decided to follow the usual pattern in blasphemy cases when the case before them was so very unusual.
Most blasphemy cases in Indonesia involve small, unorthodox “deviant” religious sects, often Muslim in derivation. Some of those jailed in the past include, for example: a mystic who claimed that whistling was a valid form of Muslim prayer: a cult leader who said he was a new prophet of Islam; a woman who claimed to be reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, in direct communication with the angel Gabriel; and an ex-boxer convert to Islam who earned the ire of MUI by proposing that prayers could be said in Indonesian, not just Arabic.
By contrast, the defendant in this case was prominent politician with a national profile, an established reputation as a committed reformer and effective administrator and a close relationship with President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”). This is the first time that Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law has been used to pull down a politician, let alone one of Ahok’s stature. And it may well knock him out of politics for good – Indonesians are prohibited from standing for public office once they have been convicted of an offence with a maximum penalty of at least five years.
The reason all this was even possible was, in part, because Ahok was a Christian leading a city that, like Indonesia as a whole, is more than 85 per cent Muslim. But that was not the only problem. After all, Jakarta has had a Christian governor before. It was just as important that Ahok was the first ethnic Chinese in the role. Yes, he was targeted as a Christian for “defaming” Islam but the viciousness of the long campaign against him was fueled by his membership of a tiny ethnic group that have been the target of racial vilification in Indonesia for centuries. Polling before the gubernatorial election that Ahok lost on 19 April showed that opposition to him was motivated as much, if not more, by his ethnicity. The gun was thus loaded and foolish comments he made about interpretation of a particular verse of the Qur’an while campaigning simply pulled the trigger.
This new use of the blasphemy law as a weapon of high politics has polarised opinion in Indonesia. Ahok’s descent from governor’s office to prison cell may be a huge victory for his enemies but it should be remembered that more than 40 per cent of Jakartans voted for him – and they must include many more Muslim “indigenous” Indonesians (or pribumi) than ethnic Chinese or non-Muslims. Religious and ethnic minorities are shocked – and some intimidated – by what happened to him, but many of his other supporters are simply outraged. Losing an election is one thing – it is quite another to be treated with such contempt by a court.
For this reason, many Indonesian and foreign observers predicted the judges would follow the middle path the prosecutors suggested, to soothe his supporters. That they did not says a lot about the extent to which the judges may have felt personally threatened by the Islamist hard-liner protesters who brought well over half a million on to the streets last year to call for Ahok’s imprisonment (and even death). There is also now speculation about whether Facebook posts suggest that one of the judges may have been biased against Ahok from the start.
In any case, it may have seemed easier to the judges to leave the risks to the appeal court that Ahok has already asked to review his conviction. After all, their court had been ringed with police at almost every hearing to fend off the hardliners and others howling outside.
There has thus been no sop offered to Ahok and his supporters by the court. Instead, the judges treated a governor who established a strong reputation for clean and efficient (if tough and blunt) leadership, and one stage enjoyed 70 per cent approval ratings, as if he was the eccentric head of a minor “deviant” cult.
This suggests a fraying of the fabric of Indonesian pluralism. The political openness and tolerance delivered by the post-Soeharto reform era (reformasi) created space for political Islam in Indonesia, just as it did for the ethnic Chinese. It did so by allowing political Islam a place in a broader pluralist system accommodating other social, cultural and political groups, including minorities. It was not intended that these groups would be displaced by political Islam.
This pluralist system has been a fundamental part of the idea of Indonesia constructed by its founders well before independence and taught to every school child since then – even if it is often just lip service and often honoured more in the breach. In any case, one of the clearly articulated aims of reformasi was to give the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Eka (Unity in Diversity) real meaning, for both Muslims and minorities.
Many Indonesians now see Ahok’s fate as a warning to minorities – particularly the ethnic Chinese – that they have no place in mainstream politics, and that Islamist groups cannot be safely challenged. They feel deeply concerned by Jokowi’s apparent willingness to remain a largely silent bystander as his friend and one-time deputy was thrown to the wolves.
They will see what the appeal court judges do next to Ahok as test of the state of Indonesian pluralism. His Islamist opponents will see it as a test of the judges’ piety.
Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.