The stars are not auspicious for Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Having lost the gubernatorial re-election last month, Ahok, as he is popularly known, went to the Cipinang detention centre in East Jakarta on May 8, after a court sentenced him to two years in prison for blasphemy.
The popular governor, a Christian from the Chinese minority, had been leading in the opinion polls, but was defeated by Anies Baswedan, a Muslim politician, in last month's election after a “blasphemy” controversy arose.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world with Sunni Islam claiming allegiance of 87 percent of its 260 million people. Its Constitution proclaims that “the state is based on the belief in the one supreme God.” The government recognises six religions officially – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism,” but “leaves alone” followers of other faiths, according to a Constitutional Court opinion (Jakarta Post, April 23, 2010).
Indonesia's blasphemy law, Article 156a of the Indonesian criminal code, was enacted in 1965 when military strongman Suharto deposed the government led by Indonesia's founding father Sukarno. The code punishes deviations from the central tenets of the six officially recognised religions with up to five years in prison.
The law was used to prosecute only around 10 individuals between 1965 and 1998, when President Suharto was in power and the right to freedom of expression was severely curtailed.
There has been an upsurge, ironically, in the number of blasphemy prosecutions coinciding with democratic transition during the post-1998 reform period. The Shi'a minority and the small Ahmadiya sect have been often a target of harassment and prosecution as were Christians and obscure local Islamic sects.
The crux of the recent controversy in Jakarta is the alleged citing of a Koranic verse by Ahok in a speech to fishermen in an island near Jakarta in course of his campaign. The verse, Surah al-Maidah 51, reads, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you—then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
Azis Anwar Fachruddin, a scholar of Religious and Cross-cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, said, “The verse will only make sense if understood in its context, that is, in a situation of war, such as when the Jews were said to have betrayed the Muslims by violating the social contract made between the two to defend Medina together when the city-state was under attack” (Jakarta Post, October 18, 2016). The verse obviously cannot be taken literally and out of context and used for an election campaign in a democracy.
In the speech to his fishing village voters, Ahokhad said, “In your inner hearts, ladies and gentlemen, you may feel you cannot vote for me, because [you have been] lied to by the use of Surah al-Maidah, Verse 51. […] So, if you cannot vote for me because you are afraid of being condemned to hell, you do not need to feel uneasy, because you are being fooled. It is alright.”
University of Indonesia linguist Rahayu Surtiarti, who watched the video of Ahok's speech, said, “By stating the word 'use', Ahok meant the verse had been used by some people to lie.” (Jakarta Post, March 21, 2017)
Ahok's protestations that he intended no insult to Islam or the Koran have been in vain. The hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI in Indonesian) mobilised over 100,000 people to march against Ahok in Jakarta in November. Their strategy seemed not to stop until the allegation of insulting Islam and the Koran stuck and Ahok was defeated and punished. The plan has worked so far.
President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, a former governor of Jakarta himself, who had Ahok as his deputy, is in a bind. He is urging calm and respect for the legal process, while maintaining a safe distance from his former colleague and political ally, lest he offends the apparently powerful hardliners.
The Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan wrote, “Jakarta election stands for something much more ominous. More gubernatorial and local elections are planned throughout the country next year and a presidential election for 2019. Indonesian politicians…have played with fire by sharing the political stage with religious groups. Because of them, radical Islam groups are the new kingmakers of Indonesian politics” (New York Times, May 2, 2017).
Bangladesh has a provision in its penal code that prohibits "hurting religious sentiments", and other laws and policies that curtail freedom of speech.
Our prime minister rejected calls for new laws from Islamist groups, notably Hefajat-e Islam, demanding death penalty for people involved in blasphemy. In April 2013, she described Bangladesh as a "secular democracy, where every religion had a right to be practiced freely and fairly." She said, "If anyone was found guilty of hurting the sentiments of the followers of any religion or its venerable figures, there was a law to deal with it" (BBC News).
Is the government falling into a trap of fine political calculation, balancing pros and cons, in terms of numbers of votes gained or lost? This is certainly the fear of the 408 noted citizens who deplored “government compromise with radicals” in a joint statement. “…an ominous competition to have the communal and fundamentalist forces by side and using religion to go to or stay in power would push the country into darkness,” they warned (The Daily Star, May 9, 2017).
Political leaders and political parties professing a vision of a modern and progressive society need to take a stand based on principles and idealism and lead the people, appealing to and awakening their best instincts, instead of giving in to fear and prejudice.
The writer is Professor Emeritus at BRAC University.