The story behind a massive Muslim protest against a Christian governor

The Christian governor of Jakarta was accused of making a blasphemous remark about the Quran, igniting protests from a Muslim group that rallied in multiple cities.

Beawiharta TPX/Reuters
Aerial view of the members of hardline Muslim groups attending a protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian running in the upcoming election, in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 4, 2016.

Tens of thousands of protesters in Jakarta, Indonesia, took to the streets on Friday to demand the ouster of the capital’s governor for making what they call blasphemous remarks against Muslims.

Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, came under fire when it was revealed that during a stump speech he had insinuated that a Quran verse prohibiting Muslims from voting for non-Muslim leaders was a lie. Charging the tensions was Mr. Purnama’s double-minority identity as a Christian and an ethnic Chinese holding an important position in a Muslim-majority country, a flash point that has ignited demonstrations in the past.

Conservative Islamist groups immediately condemned Mr. Purnama for “insulting Islam,” culminating in the march during which protesters carried signs demanding the death penalty of the official, even as a trending hashtag (#tangkapahok) urged police to "Arrest Ahok."

Race and religion can be sensitive topics in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world. The country is known for practicing a moderate form of Islam despite having seen homegrown Islamist attacks, Islamic State recruitment, and implementation of Islamic laws, representing what some see as a tussle over the interpretation of religious freedom in a diverse but traditional society that has been transitioning to democracy since the late 1990s. For Indonesian officials, balancing these priorities may be their key challenge.

“It has to do with this ongoing debate in Indonesia about how these constitutional guarantees of religious freedom which are very strong on paper, how in practice they should be,” Robert Hefner, a professor at Boston University who has researched Muslim culture tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “The hardliners are trying to shift public opinion in a less protective way ... in a way that I think undermines religious freedom.”

The rally, also held in multiple other cities, was in fact organized by a hard-line group Islam Defenders Front (FPI).  As Jakarta Post points out, they’re the same group that protested against Ahok when he became governor of Jakarta in 2014, saying that Ahok did not deserve the position because he was “not only Christian and Chinese, but also arrogant and ignorant.”

But they’re a minority that doesn’t receive many electoral votes, Professor Hefner notes, compared with the nation’s larger Islamic groups. While the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has said Ahok’s statement is blasphemy and should be investigated by law enforcement officials, they said they were not involved in organizing the rally. The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, two of the largest Muslim organizations, have said they would not encourage their followers to take part in the rally.

"The hardliners' take on what religious freedom [is] ... it's one that rejects the rights of anybody who says something that may deviate from a conservative understanding from Islamic orthodoxy," Hefner says. The attacks are usually targeted at more secular or liberal Muslims, he says, constituting a clash between interpretations of religion in a modern and diverse context, although much of it can be political in nature.

"When we see situations like these protests against Ahok, it's being used for politics, it can take a much harder edge," Conor Cronin, research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "But I don't think that is representative of Indonesian Islam."

President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, has taken a cautious tack in dealing with the issue even though he was accused of siding with Ahok, his ally when he was governor of Jakarta. He chose instead to schedule a meeting with his political rival from a previous election and 30 Muslim leaders to ease tensions before the rally.

Other Indonesian political leaders who are Muslim have also made an effort to ease tensions that could otherwise divide the nation.

"That’s something we really watch for. We are a pluralistic country. Our country has many tribes, many religions, many races. If there are problems, let’s resolve them in a cool-headed way, a peaceful way," Prabowo Subianto, who ran against current President Jokowi Widodo, said in a press conference, as reported by regional publication Benar News.

Figuring out how to live with the differences in religious interpretation may become a more pressing need as the Muslim fringe parties, who have been present for decades, may gain more exposure through staging such public demonstrations. But all of this might be part of the "unexpected outcomes of democratization in Indonesia," Jakarta Post columnist Hendri Yulius wrote.

"While freedom of expression is now guaranteed, hate speech has gotten out of control. Some would argue that Indonesia’s democracy is still nascent and hence needs more time to become more mature and substantive," Mr. Yulius wrote. "Nevertheless, whatever the case, it is important to be continuously reminded that bigots are everywhere, and we should choose leaders based on their programs, track record and commitment, instead of religion and ethnicity."

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