Indonesia's Blasphemy Conviction Threatens Muslim Democracy. But I Still Have Hope.
Image: Dasril Roszandi / Sipa USA via AP
Supporters of Ahok rally in Jakarta after his conviction.

When I learned that the Christian governor of Jakarta had been convicted and imprisoned for blasphemy, I was stunned. So were my dinner companions: four senior Indonesian political leaders—three Muslims, one Christian.

We were celebrating the end of a grueling six-week tour, traveling the United States and Europe to promote the archipelago’s religious pluralism. We hoped to persuade political, military, academic, and religious leaders to work with Indonesians to overcome extremist Islamist ideology.

Earlier in the trip, we had received the dismaying news that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—universally known as Ahok—had lost his election bid. But since we were laying a foundation for working with many in the West, at the time we were still encouraged.

With the news of Ahok’s sentencing to two years in prison, a pall fell over our gathering. Our very well-informed companions believed this victory for radicalism might be a prelude to the demise of democracy in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

But there are also reasons for hope.

After years of working on issues of religious persecution, principally in the Islamic world, I became convinced that little would change unless the dominant interpretations of Islam in the region changed.

That led me to pay more attention to Indonesia, a country I have long loved, since it is the largest source of democratic and open Islam. I became a senior fellow at the Leimena Institute, a Christian think tank in the capital, Jakarta, working with Christians and Muslims.

Here is my assessment of the situation, and why American Christians like me should care.

1) The Bad News

The conviction of Ahok culminates a bizarre election for the governorship of Indonesia’s capital city that made the recent US presidential election look sedate. He had been a capable and corruption-free governor, and in the campaign’s early days he held a large lead.

This was especially striking since Ahok is ethnic Chinese in a society where anti-Chinese sentiment remains strong, as well as a committed Calvinist Christian in a country that is 88-percent Muslim. Social media was replete with photographs of people holding signs declaring “I am a Muslim and I support Ahok.”

In a speech last September, Ahok made a reference to a Qur‘anic verse, al-Maidah 51, warning Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies. He said the verse was being misused to claim that Muslims are forbidden to vote for non-Muslims.

A few days later, a mendaciously edited video of his remarks went viral on the internet. Then the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa (a religious ruling) saying that Ahok had blasphemed.

Shortly after, the radical, sometimes violent, Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) teamed up with the newly formed “National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa” to demand that Ahok be arrested. There were massive demonstrations in Jakarta in November and December. On November 16, the police announced that he was being officially investigated for blasphemy.

The campaign then turned even more ugly. Anies Baswedan, the comparatively moderate former education minister and Ahok’s chief opponent, visited the FPI’s headquarters to give a speech and sat alongside its leader, Habib Rizieq. Radical preachers declared that Muslims were forbidden to vote for a non-Muslim. Several mosques displayed banners saying that any Muslim who voted for Ahok could never be given an Islamic burial.

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