The streets outside North Jakarta's historic Luar Batang Mosque were quiet when I arrived. I was told that the mosque used to be the social hub of the community. But that was before a heavy police presence took hold of the slum. Now, this small community, one that dates back to the 17th century, is at the center at one of Indonesia's biggest political and social fights in recent history.
"Most of the young boys don't hang around here anymore," explained a middle-aged woman who was selling cold drinks near the mosque. "They're afraid of the intelligence agents."
Kampung Luar Batang is at the forefront of the fight to remove embattled Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama from office. The neighborhood turned against the governor, who is popularly known as Ahok, in April of this year when the city announced plans to evict some 1,000 residents of nearby Pasar Ikan. City officials said that Pasar Ikan and Luar Batang are in danger of being flooded by the encroaching Jakarta Bay—the result of rising sea levels and the fact that the Indonesian capital is sinking as much as 25 centimeters a year.
Ahok's administration planned to demolish both communities, turning Pasar Ikan into a tourist area promoting the city's maritime heritage and the area around the Luar Batang Mosque into a religious site. The plan is tied-up in larger programs to both boost tourism to Jakarta's Kota Tua—a neighborhood rich in history but stricken by blight—and reduce annual flooding in the capital.
But residents of Pasar Ikan and Luar Batang didn't want to leave. More than 4,000 Indonesian security forces—a coalition of the military, police, and law and order agency—moved into Pasar Ikan in April after weeks of protest. The residents were evicted from their homes and much of the community was reduced to rubble.
The planned eviction of Luar Batang was placed on hold as construction of the city's subsidized apartments—called rusunawa—meant to house them were hampered by delays. As the eviction plans dragged on, resistance in Luar Batang dug in. By the time I visited the slum, the community had become one of the most vocal of Ahok's critics. Some locals have organized into an ormas called Laskar Pembela Luar Batang to fight the evictions. A banner reading, "don't destroy our village with the power of money," hung on a wall. The neighborhood had many banners and graffiti expressing similar resentment.
It's a fight that has quickly risen to the national level. Jakarta is in the middle of one of the most-heated elections in recent history as Ahok faces off against rivals from parties that oppose President Joko Widodo—the city's former governor and Ahok's one-time running mate. Ahok now faces up to five years in prison over charges that he committed blasphemy by criticizing an interpretation of the Quran that said that Muslims couldn't vote for a non-Muslim leader.
More than 100,000 protestors poured into the streets on November 4th demanding Ahok's arrest in a demonstration quickly took on sectarian and racial tones. The night of the protest, angry mobs attacked motorists and looted a convenience store in Penjaringan, North Jakarta. The violence triggered fresh concerns among the city's ethnic Chinese community of rising intolerance and the threat of anti-Chinese riots. Police quickly arrested a number of the rioters. They said that some were from Luar Batang. The leader of Laskar Pembela Luar Batang was questioned by police over his alleged involvement, but he was released due to a lack of evidence.
Daeng Mansyur Amin denied claims that Luar Batang residents were involved in the looting. I met the man, the secretary of Luar Batang Mosque, during my visit. He said the allegations were all a smear campaign aimed at tarnishing Luar Batang's reputation.
"Don't vilify our name by accusing us of looting," he told me. "Our movement is based on the principles of religion. When the looting occurred, I went and asked someone [a security guard] there, he believes it wasn't anyone from Luar Batang."
Mansyur, who claimed to speak for the entire community, said they helped organized the demonstration, but that's it. Sure some of the community members were involved in the violence, he admitted, but none had a role in planning the attacks.
"At the time, we were accused of being looters and being orchestrators of the looting," Mansyur said. "But if we were accused of igniting a movement of locals to protest and defend the Quran, then we'd admit to that."
It's a telling statement. The opposition in Luar Batang began on economic and human rights grounds. But as the fight intensified—and hardline Islamists entered the fray—the battleground shifted to religion.
"For us, the people of Luar Batang, we're a village with a long history of battling against oppression"—Daeng Mansyur Amin
Ian Wilson saw the shift first-hand. Today, many in the community aren't necessarily racist, or overtly conservative, but they still see the blasphemy charge as a vital tool in the movement to force Ahok from office, explained Wilson, a lecturer at Australia's Murdoch University who spent time in Luar Batang during his research on the evictions.
"I don't necessarily think they have a grasp or even a view about the broader political implications of what this could mean," he said of the Luar Batang community. "They don't like Ahok, he's been the source of great disruption to their lives, so they want to see him fall, and if this is the way that happens, then so be it."
Wilson believes that the community came to embrace sectarian and racially charged views once hardline Islamist organizations began to offer communities like Luar Batang an avenue to larger protests. By redirecting the conversation, Islamist groups were able to push what was once a local issue to the national stage. But as the opposition grew, the anger quickly took on a dangerous, racially-charged air.
"There is always that lurking racism," Wilson said. "This is also an outspoken and brash politician who is ethnically Chinese, so for some people, not everyone, but for some people, this exasperated the pain and the anger that they felt and again there were plenty of people who were available to offer any number of conspiracy theories or ideas that highlighted that dimension of it."
But Mansyur denies that the protests have anything to do with Ahok's religion or ethnicity.
"We don't hate Ahok because he is of Chinese descent," he said. "We don't hate Ahok because he is Christian. We hate him because of his policies."
For Mansyur, this is just the latest chapter in the community's long and tumultuous history. The neighborhood began in the 17th century as a village erected on the opposite side of the wooden barriers of the Dutch East India Company's (VOC) port. Those barriers were meant to prevent native perahus without permits from docking at the port. Instead they gave rise to one of Jakarta's most historically entrenched communities.
"For us, the people of Luar Batang, we're a village with a long history of battling against oppression," Mansyur explained.
The Luar Batang Mosque is the glue that has held the slum together. The mosque, according to history, is where Habib Husein bin Abu Bakar Alaydrus—an important and revered figure—began to spread the Islamic faith to Jakarta's indigenous Betawi people. Some locals believe the slum's name, Luar Batang, was coined after Habib's body disappeared from his coffin (kurung batang) during his funeral procession. The name roughly translates to "outside the coffin." But another, more common belief, is that the name stems from the community being outside (luar) the VOC's wooden fence (batang).
Sitting in office of the Luar Batang Mosque, Mansyur turned the conversation to the eviction of Pasar Ikan. That neighborhood, which is only a few hundred meters from where we stood, symbolized everything that Luar Batang residents like Mansyur fear.
"Markets were obliterated, whole villages were obliterated," he said. "Imagine how it feels to lose your home—and livelihood—in the blink of an eye."