In the most populous Muslim nation, a test of tolerance

Voters in Indonesia’s capital may elect a Christian as governor, perhaps sending a message to much of the Muslim world about a religious test for secular leaders.

The governor of Indonesia's capital, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, talks to reporters after casting his ballot during the Feb. 15 initial election for Jakarta's governor.

Since 2009, the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands has had a Muslim mayor. Last year, British voters in London elected a Muslim as mayor. And this week, Democrats in the United States are considering a Muslim, Rep. Keith Ellison, to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee.

These are examples of democracies with Christian majorities becoming more accepting of Muslim politicians – simply for their competence as political leaders. But what about Christians running for office in largely Muslim countries? Can a similar tolerance toward religious background be found?

A good example is happening in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation and its third-largest democracy.

On Feb. 15, in a three-way race for the governorship of the capital, Jakarta, the Christian incumbent – who faces blasphemy charges for allegedly making a negative comment about the Quran – won the most votes (43 percent) against two rivals who ran on their Muslim faith. This initial victory for Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was significant because more than 80 percent of the voters are Muslims. In addition, his opponents held large pro-Muslim rallies in trying to oust him.

Mr. Basuki, who is also ethnic Chinese, ran hard on his record as a clean reformer. He inherited his post in 2014 after then-Gov. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (a Muslim) became Indonesia’s president. The two are allies. Basuki made a strong case that he should be known by his works as governor, not his faith. He now faces a runoff April 19 against a former national education minister, Anies Baswedan, who came in a few percentage points behind him in the first poll.

Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation of 250 million, has had a secular Constitution and government since 1945. Its democracy is still young. An authoritarian leader, Suharto, was ousted in 1998. In recent years, it has seen a rise in political parties espousing political Islam.

If Basuki wins the final round, he may still face a court trial for his recent comments about the Muslim holy book, which he says were taken out of context. But any legal battle could take years.

In the meantime, an election win for him would send a message to much of the Muslim world that a religious test for those seeking office does not fit the basic purpose of government as a neutral protector of people of all faiths.

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