Verdict in Ahok blasphemy trial likely to put Indonesia’s democracy in the dock

Tens of thousands take part in a prayer at Jakarta’s National Monument during the December 2 rally against Ahok. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani Security forces stand in the rain during the December 2 rally. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

A man wearing Indonesian flag colours and Islamic symbols prays at an anti-Ahok rally. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Female protesters against Ahok gather at the national monument in Jakarta. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, centre, is photographed as he joins the demonstrators on December 2. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Demonstrators pray in the rain at the December 2 rally against Ahok. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Jakarta: On December 2, students at a junior high school in Purbalingga, Central Java, were asked this question in their multiple-choice history test: “What is the name of the current gubernatorial candidate who insulted the Koran?”

The “correct” answer was d) Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, the embattled governor of Jakarta whose blasphemy trial for allegedly insulting Islam begins on Tuesday, December 13.

The right of individuals to be considered innocent until proven guilty is enshrined in Indonesian law and the teacher was forced to apologise after the Muhammadiyah (the second-largest Islamic civil organisation in Indonesia) schools board learned of the question.

But it illustrates what many commentators fear: that Ahok’s conviction (he faces a maximum five-year jail sentence) is a foregone conclusion.

Police have confirmed that maximum security measures will be in place during the trial, after three massive rallies spearheaded by Islamic hardliners, one of which ended in violence, called for Ahok to be jailed.

But there are real fears Indonesia could become what Tempo magazine dubbed a “mobocracy”.

The respected magazine, banned under the Suharto regime as a threat to national stability, wrote in a rousing editorial: “A legal system that bows to pressure from the masses would turn Indonesia into a mobocracy …  Such a state of affairs, [Aristotle] declared, is nothing short of anarchy.”

More worrying than the fragile state of the rule of law in Indonesia, the magazine says, is the likelihood of the Ahok case becoming a precedent, with anyone being indicted because of mass pressure: “Nobody in their right mind would allow this to happen.”

The most recent rally on December 2 was attended by about 500,000 protesters, some carrying dramatic banners dripping with painted blood that demanded Ahok be jailed.

The controversial governor – the first openly ethnic Chinese Christian to occupy the role – opened a Pandora’s box when he allegedly provocatively told voters they had been deceived by his opponents citing verse 51 from the fifth sura or chapter of the Koran, al-Ma’ida.

Some interpret this as prohibiting Muslims from living under the leadership of a non-Muslim, although others say the scripture should be understood in its context – a time of war – and not interpreted literally.

Radical Islamic organisations have long opposed Ahok because they refuse to be led by a kafir (non-Muslim) but he proved stubbornly popular with his policies on reducing traffic congestion, flood mitigation, bureaucracy reform and free healthcare, appealing to middle-class Jakartans.

After inheriting the role of governor when his boss and political patron, Joko Widodo, was elected Indonesia’s president in 2014, Ahok looked set to win in his own right in the gubernatorial elections next February.

His opponents, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son Agus – whom a Jakarta Post columnist snidely suggested was being marketed largely on the “handsome factor” – and former education minister Anies Baswedan, were trailing in the polls.

But then Ahok’s inflammatory comments gave those who opposed him the ammunition they were looking for and profoundly changed the political landscape.

After a November rally calling for his imprisonment turned ugly, police declared Ahok a suspect, whilst admitting expert witnesses and investigators were divided over whether his comments were in fact blasphemous.

The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to appease the masses, with President Joko sufficiently alarmed about the civil unrest to cancel a state visit to Australia and commence a “political safari” of party and state institution leaders urging calm.

But the mob was not satisfied and another political rally – the biggest demonstration in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto – went ahead on December 2 demanding that Ahok be put behind bars.

The national police chief, General Tito Karnavian, appeared to play into their hands telling the cheering crowd: “We have done the maximum. Imagine, several times he was investigated by the KPK [Corruption Eradication Commission], but [Ahok] wasn’t able to be named a suspect. Handled by the police, he can be named a suspect.”

“In Ahok’s case, by demanding that the police have been too slow, Islamists put pressure on the police to hasten the process,” Dr Melissa Crouch, an expert on Indonesia’s blasphemy laws from the University of New South Wales, writes in

“By demanding that the Attorney-General arrest Ahok, they are already presuming charges will be laid. By a show of force in the capital, Islamists issue an implicit threat to the judiciary who may hear the case – we will mob your courtroom next.

“So much for a fair and impartial hearing.”

At the eleventh hour President Joko made the abrupt and controversial decision to join the prayers at the December 2 rally alongside the radical Islam Defenders Front and then address the crowd.

This was applauded as a canny tactical win by many, although others argued it legitimised political extremists.

To an extent he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t – his decision not to meet with protesters at the earlier November rally served to inflame tensions.

“[Joko] demonstrated considerable courage in rising to stand before a giant, largely hostile crowd,” analyst Kevin O’Rourke wrote on the Reformasi website.

“Nevertheless, [Joko]’s actions do nothing to aid his former running mate and political ally, Purnama [Ahok].

Ahok has never been afraid of ruffling feathers. He is loathed as much as he is loved, with his policy of evicting slum dwellers angering the urban poor and his plans for the reclamation of Jakarta Bay attacked by environmentalists.

His political rivals have successfully exploited anger over the alleged blasphemy comments to undermine both Ahok and his ally, President Joko. Ahok is now behind the other gubernatorial candidates in some polls.

There is also little doubt racism is at play. Only around 1 to 4 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are ethnic Chinese, but their economic success has caused resentment to bubble away for centuries. Ahok has been described as both a “Chinese bastard” and “the Chinese Infidel”.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment has been growing during Jokowi’s presidency as unprecedented  Chinese investment pours into the country,” writes Associate Professor Greg Fealy from the Australian National University.

He writes that it is now difficult to imagine that Ahok can avoid being found guilty because the government cannot afford for it to be otherwise, given Ahok has become so reviled a figure in the Muslim community.

“Over the past decade Indonesian democracy has been regressing on numerous fronts, including religious freedom,”  Professor Fealy says.

“The Ahok case and mass mobilisation that has surrounded it represents yet another reversal. The events of the past two months give a hollow ring to Indonesia’s claim to being a moderate Muslim democracy.”

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