imprisonment on blasphemy charges of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja
Purnama, better known as Ahok, has been a blow to hopes that his earlier
success in public office represented the emergence of a more pluralist
politics in Indonesia.
There is little question that the accusation that
Ahok had insulted the Koran, for which the evidence was always quite
thin, contributed to his defeat in polls last month. Sadly, his defeat
and imprisonment may discourage others of Ahok's ethnic and religious
background from seeking public office.
Yet some journalists havegonefurther,
arguing that Ahok's defeat and imprisonment are not just a solitary
victory for the Islamists who demanded his ouster, but an indication
that Indonesian Islam is increasingly intolerant, that its democracy is
moving in a fundamentally illiberal direction, and that a well-funded
coalition of Islamists and populists will ride the wave of these changes
to victory in the next presidential election in 2019.
But there are also reasons to believe that these analysts have
overstated the broader implications of the verdict, and that Indonesia
will revert to form.
First, Indonesia has never been as tolerant as the clichéd praise of journalists and visiting dignitaries
would suggest. Though the constitution allows for freedom of worship,
this is in practice a group right rather than an individual right. The
state authorises adherence to one of six religions, but citizens are not
free to deviate from these six, and can be prosecuted under blasphemy
laws for challenging religious authorities. Over 100 people have been charged with blasphemy since 2004. In the case of Ahok, the defendant was unusual, but the charges were not.
Indonesia's system of group rights affects how Muslim leaders and
many of their followers think about politics and the role of religious
minorities. Social cohesion is often placed ahead of freedom of
conscience. For example, surveys conducted
by Boston University's Jeremy Menchik in 2010 illustrated that even
among the most tolerant Muslim groups in Indonesia, most clerics were
opposed to the idea of a Christian serving as a leader of
Muslim-majority areas like Jakarta. In other words, Indonesia is tolerant but not liberal.
Second, some research suggests opposition to Ahok may have had more to do
with anti-Chinese sentiment than the influence of political Islam.
During the Suharto era, even as Islamist organisations were suppressed,
Indonesian leaders libelled the ethnic Chinese minority as a foreign
business elite of questionable loyalty, curtailed their participation in
public life, and stoked popular resentment to deflect criticism of
their own cronyism, especially when economic growth faltered.
Under democratic rule, conditions for Chinese Indonesians improved,
but indigenous elites have periodically returned to anti-Chinese
rhetoric. President Jokowi's opponent in the 2014 presidential election,
Prabowo Subianto, frequently used rhetoric that implied Chinese Indonesians were foreigners enriching themselves at the expense of their fellow Indonesians. And few Chinese Indonesians in the democratic era have succeeded in winning executive office. Again, Ahok was the exception, not the rule.
There is, however, a broader constituency for anti-Chinese populism
than there is for political Islam, so it would be a mistake to assume
that all those who marched or voted against Ahok also support the
Islamist agenda. Some Islamist leaders, emboldened by Ahok's fall, say
that they plan to tap into resentment against ethnic Chinese to push
their agenda further. But without a target as prominent and polarising
as Ahok, it will be more difficult to use anti-Chinese populism to
mobilise popular resentment to the same degree.
The protests against Ahok last year that appear to have pushed the
Attorney General to lodge the blasphemy case were very well-funded – and
not for religious reasons.
The largest protests since Indonesia's
return to democracy received unprecedented financial and logistical
support from an ad hoc coalition of political party bosses seeking to
defeat a close ally of the president ahead of general elections in 2019
(as Jokowi himself demonstrated in 2014, the Jakarta governorship is the
ideal launching pad from which to mount one's own presidential
campaign). Free transportation and food for the demonstrators, as well
as donations to organising groups, were instrumental in managing the
business of bringing hundreds of thousands into Jakarta to demonstrate
against Ahok's alleged blasphemy, in demonstrations led by radical
organisations that normally play a fringe role in Indonesian society.
Once Ahok was declared a suspect in the blasphemy case, however, the
contributions dried up, and radicals' subsequent efforts to convene
large demonstrations flopped. Even malcontent elites do not want their
hard-line hatchet men given a seat at the table.
Attendees at the rallies were hardly liberals, but nor were they
mostly Islamist radicals. Greg Fealy, a leading expert on Islamic
activism in Indonesia who attended the largest, ultimately
peaceful rally noted that
participants explained to him that they were motivated to attend by a
desire to take part in what promised to be a monumental gathering of
They agreed that Ahok should be removed from
public life, but they stopped short of arguing that religious laws
should be superior to the secular laws of the Republic.
The coalition of Islamists and populists that brought down Ahok have
now trained their sights on a bigger target: President Jokowi, who is up
for re-election in two years. But they will struggle to replicate their
success against Jokowi, who has all the financial and political
advantages of incumbency and, more importantly, is of Javanese rather
than Chinese heritage, and a Muslim rather than a Christian. Smear campaigns suggesting otherwise during
the 2014 presidential election were ineffective, and would be even less
compelling following five closely watched years as President.
That said, the Jokowi Administration has erred as it has sought to
push back against the forces of populism and intolerance by giving in to
their demands that Ahok be tried for his remarks, and by adopting some
of their illiberal tactics.
Jokowi realised too late that the blasphemy allegations might be
successfully used against his erstwhile deputy. He avoided early
opportunities to dispel the accusations as a smear campaign, for fear of
being seen as too liberal, and his vague pronouncements about allowing
the legal process to run its course provided too much room for manoeuvre
to those who would exploit that process. Although the President stepped
up his outreach to Islamic leaders and other major political figures
when the scope of the crisis became clear, it was too little and came
too late to turn back the momentum against Ahok.
By contrast, the day before Ahok was sentenced, the Jokowi
Administration announced that it would go to court to seek the
dissolution of the Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir, which played a leading
role in the protests. Indonesian leaders have long considered banning
the organisation because it advocates the establishment of a caliphate
in Southeast Asia, but have held off because it rejects violence. The
decision seems motivated more by politics than law, and it will require
compliance from a court system that just demonstrated its fear of
confrontational Islamist groups. Banning the organisation could also
drive its followers underground, where security services will have
greater difficulty monitoring their activity, and may prompt its
followers to reconsider their non-violent approach.
The announcement – couched in the authoritarian language of the Suharto era – legitimises
the dissolution of non-violent civil society groups, a practice far
more likely to be used against minorities and those advocating for a
more pluralist Indonesia than against other, less tolerant groups. As
with the government's recent decision to bring treason charges against a
motley but largely harmless crew of activists, fringe political figures
and disaffected generals who were engaged in last year's protests, its
move against Hizbut Tahrir highlights the risk that the government's
heavy-handedness will backfire.
Jokowi thus bears some responsibility for the predicament in which he
and his compatriots now find themselves. But all is not lost. There has
been an outpouring of support
for Ahok from supporters of pluralism and moderate civil society since
the verdict was announced. Popular support for the forces of intolerance
very well may have peaked, and if starved of elite support they are
likely to continue foundering.
Jokowi has been damaged by the episode, but remains in a strong
position going into Indonesia's long presidential campaign.
learn from his earlier missteps, and take a strong stand against those
actively politicising intolerance now rather than later, in the
political arena rather than the courts, from a position of relative