Ahok Blasphemy Charge is a 'Setback for Indonesia': Human Rights Watch
Photo via Ahok's official Facebook account
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Ahok Blasphemy Charge is a 'Setback for Indonesia': Human Rights Watch

The decision to charge Ahok under the controversial blasphemy law has wide-reaching implications in Indonesia.
November 18, 2016, 1:00am

Indonesian human rights groups were rattled on this week as the National Police named embattled Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a suspect in a politically-charged blasphemy case that could set a dangerous precedent in this Muslim-majority nation.

"This is going to be another setback for Indonesia," said Andreas Harsono, of Human Rights Watch. "The progress that Indonesia has seen since the fall of Suharto is going to regress again."

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The governor, who is popularly known as Ahok, was charged under Indonesia's controversial blasphemy law for challenging an interpretation of the Quran that says Muslims cannot vote for a non-Muslim candidate in the coming gubernatorial election. His words triggered massive and, at times, chaotic demonstrations in the Indonesian capital as more than 100,000 protestors called for his arrest.

Continued pressure from hardline Islamist groups on the National Police and President Joko Widodo to move forward with the blasphemy case put investigators in a bind. The police, who admit they were highly divided on the matter, had to either progress with the case and risk being accused of bowing to Islamist groups, or scrap the charges and face accusations that they folded to pressure from the president, a man popularly known as Jokowi who campaigned with Ahok in the last Jakarta governor's race.

In the end, the police passed the decision to the courts, who will have to hear the case against Ahok. He is barred from leaving the country, but is allowed to continue campaigning in the Jakarta governor's race. The decision shows the wide-reach of the blasphemy law—a controversial law that has been used with startling frequency in recent years, explained Human Rights Watch's Harsono.

"Ahok might be the biggest fish in the history of the blasphemy law in Indonesia," Harsono said. "In the past, those who were prosecuted were mostly religious minority figures. They were common people. When Suharto was in power, the article was only used eight times. Under [former-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono], it was used more than 200 times in ten years."

A scene from the November 4 protests. Photo by Iyas Lawrence

The charges come as Ahok faces rivals—including SBY's own son—in a heated election that has seen some groups dredge up racial and sectarian rhetoric that many hoped were a thing of the past. The popular governor is both Christian and ethnically Chinese—two groups that have been the target of violence and discrimination in the recent past.

When Ahok inherited the governor's office from Jokowi, many saw it as a turning point for Chinese Indonesians in politics. But recent protests show that an undercurrent of racism still bubbles beneath the surface, explained Charlotte Setijadi, who studies the Chinese Indonesian community at Singapore's ISAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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"The fact that anti-Chinese sentiment and racially motivated hate speech would surface during times of political and economic instability tells us that undercurrents of racism and xenophobia are alive and well in contemporary Indonesia," said Setijadi. "Anti-Chinese sentiments prove to be one of the easiest buttons to push to rile up angry mobs, and this is a situation that has time and time again has been easily taken advantage of by various parties seeking to destabilize political situations."

That's exactly what many argue is happening here. President Jokowi himself has accused "political actors" of playing a role in the protests during an address televised the night of the November 4th demonstrations. Some point the finger at SBY—an allegation that the former president steadfastly denies—or at opposition parties who hope to use the issue as a way to score a blow against Jokowi because of his close relationship with Ahok.

"This unfortunately means that even with the flimsiest pretext, religion remains the easiest way to attack your political opponent," said Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani. "It is still very difficult to see whether all these religious-based attacks will dent Ahok's popularity, but this will make people very careful when talking about religion."

Photo by Iyas Lawrence

But others believe that the anger directed at Ahok has deeper roots in the frustrations of Jakarta's lower-income residents. Ahok's plans to develop the capital have hinged, in a large part, on a program of forced evictions of low-income "squatter" communities.

The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has spent years making in-roads into these communities as a way to attack the incumbent governor. Their involvement offers poorer residents a way to vocalize their grievances while simultaneously casting the conversation in sectarian and racial tones.

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Communities like Luar Batang, in North Jakarta, aren't inherently prejudiced, but they see the blasphemy charge as a way to oust Ahok from office and prevent his administration from evicting their neighborhood, explained Ian Wilson, a lecturer at Australia's Murdoch University who studies these groups.

"Many of them have become really intensely invested in the blasphemy charge," Wilson said. "I don't think it's because they have a deep religious convictions. A lot of them want revenge against Ahok and they see this as a way to do it."

Wilson saw echoes of the recent U.S. presidential election in the anger directed at Ahok. Many of the capital's poor feel that they have been neglected by a government that pushes policies that favor the middle class, Wilson explained.

"Many people who are attracted to groups like the FPI associate liberalism and socially liberal values with a particular socio-economic class that they feel doesn't respect them, doesn't recognize them, or treats them poorly," Wilson said. "In many ways, those kinds of ideas have coalesced in the figure of Ahok and groups like the FPI have just fed that fire."

There's more at play here than one election. Indonesian political parties routinely use the Jakarta governor's race as a testing ground for the presidential election. The governor's seat is what launched Jokowi from the mayor of Solo to the Presidential Palace and members of the opposition parties are already eyeing the 2019 presidential race.

Ahok's opponents have repeatedly attempted to force him from office. The FPI backed early anti-Ahok rallies centered on his controversial Jakarta Bay reclamation project. Those demonstrations failed to make a wider impact on the election.

With the blasphemy allegations the hardline Islamists found a way to attack the governor in a very visible way. But the use of this law against an incumbent governor in the middle of a campaign season shows how the blasphemy law can be used to undermine the country's democratic system, according to Human Rights Watch's Harsono.

"It's a a political move," he said. "With this law it is always a political move."