The recent sentencing of Ahok, the Christian Chinese-Indonesian Governor of Jakarta, to two years in jail for blasphemy will leave many Australians confounded if not, sadly, further averse to Indonesia.
The court's decision is not a small thing. Jakarta alone has a population roughly that of New South Wales and Victoria combined. Jailing its governor is the equivalent of putting an Australian state premier behind bars, conceivable only for the most egregious of crimes.
When the official in question is also widely admired for his competency, opposition to corruption, and drive to reform the massive mess which is Jakarta, one could be forgiven for assuming his blasphemy must have been of medieval proportions.
Did he denounce Islam as 'evil' like the American evangelist Franklin Graham? Did he publicly denounce God as 'stupid' like Stephen Fry, now the subject of investigation for blasphemy by the Irish police? On the contrary. Ahok is deeply respectful of Islam and has many Muslim supporters. Though a Christian, he is also impressively Islam-literate and can quote the Koran, an unusual ability for a Christian.
Ironically it is this knowledge that worked against him. He asked an Indonesian audience not to be persuaded to vote against him by opponents who claimed the Koran prohibits Muslims from voting for non-Muslims. The implication that leaders should be chosen for their competence not their religion or ethnic background will sound like common sense rather than blasphemy to most people.
But extreme Muslims claimed his comment vilified the Koran and that voting for an infidel is apostasy. Their campaign mobilised huge numbers, mainly from outside Jakarta, and resulted in Ahok losing the recent election for the governorship, and his freedom. Unless his appeal to the supreme court succeeds, the blasphemy finding also means he will be banned for life from running for public office.
The affair has already done a serious disservice to Indonesia. It presents Indonesia as fanatical, racist and sectarian. While these perceptions are patently unfair, the affair also reveals some aspects of contemporary Indonesia that are obscured by Canberra's often lavish praise of our important neighbour.
Radical Islam is increasing in strength and confidence in Indonesia. 'Be careful what you wish for,' an Indonesian academic said to me during the anti-democratic Suharto years.
"As with Indonesia's mock trials on human rights violations in East Timor when the court absolved the powerful military, the court has compromised its independence and bowed to external pressure."
He went on to observe that democracy would allow Muslim organisations sidelined during the Suharto years to operate freely and accept generous funding from benefactors like the Saudi regime whose King Salman recently made a historic visit to Indonesia. The majority of Muslims are moderate and disagree with the hard right but the Ahok case shows that, in a country of 240 million people, a minority can comprise millions and exercise significant political influence.
This influence extends to the nominally independent judiciary whose pronouncement on Ahok is widely considered to have been dictated by the protestors. In effect Ahok was lynched. Most fair-minded people in Indonesia and beyond, not least in places like England and Wales where blasphemy laws have been abolished, would struggle to see what was blasphemous about Ahok's reference to the Koran. The court put aggressive sectional politics ahead of its duty to comply with the rule of law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which post-Suharto Indonesia is a signatory. As with Indonesia's mock trials on human rights violations in East Timor when the court absolved the powerful military, the court has compromised its independence and bowed to external pressure.
The sidelining of Ahok also demonstrates the continuing power of entrenched political and economic interests in Indonesia. Ahok stood for clean government. He is a vigorous opponent of corruption, a vice roundly condemned in the Koran. Arguably Ahok's opposition to this Indonesian curse should have earned the admiration of all Muslims, not jail.
Ahok's removal is also a victory for Prabowo Subianto, recently headlined by the Age as Indonesia's possible next president. The ex-general's candidate beat Ahok in the governship elections, thereby delivering Prabowo a major platform from which to conduct his assault on the presidency, currently held by Joko Widodo, himself a former governor of Jakarta. The Age reported that Prabowo forbids the killing of insects on his ranch. Timorese would laugh in disbelief. Their truth commission report lists him as having command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the many years he was active in East Timor.
The Catholic archbishop of Jakarta has publicly condemned growing fundamentalism and intolerance in Indonesia and the Protestant Council of Churches has called for Ahok's release and the revocation of the blasphemy law. Nuns, priests, seminarians and laity have rallied in support of Ahok. One sincerely hopes that the supreme court will overrule in Ahok's favour and that the campaign to scrap the blasphemy law will succeed. Both measures would do much to restore faith in Indonesia and its future.
Pat Walsh is a human rights activist and former adviser to the East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. He co-founded Inside Indonesia magazine.
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16 May 2017
As always Pat's article helped me understand the complexity of Indonesian politics. I was particularly struck by his description of the Indonesian judiciary as "nominally independent" and the willingness of the churches to stand up for Ahok. Thanks Pat.
16 May 2017
Small correction: Stephen Fry is not "the subject of investigation for blasphemy by the Irish police." And indeed, was never seriously "investigated", but it was too good a story to pass over by those wishing to depict the Irish as stupid and Catholicism as irrational.
16 May 2017
The radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) spearheaded the anti-Ahok movement, mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in rallies, joined by other radical groups including Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) which the government is seeking to disband.
HTI seeks to replace the secular Republic of Indonesia with an Islamic caliphate as part of a wider goal to establish a global caliphate.
NU’s secretary-general Staquf lamented that the Indonesia government appears to be afraid of radical groups, further emboldening them.
“What makes me concerned all this while is that the government appears … to be afraid of the possibility that the radical groups will threaten peace and security, cause riots and others,” said Staquf. “I see this happening not only in Indonesia but all over the world.
“I believe this is the wrong attitude to take as it leads to radicals blackmailing governments and societies.
“What is countered right now is violent extremism but not non-violent extremism, as if non-violent extremism is okay. Non-violent extremism is only one step away from violence. Both of them are dangerous ... they threaten peace and security everywhere in the world,”
Read more at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/jailing-of-ahok-emboldens-hardliners-in-and-outside-of-indonesia-8839176
16 May 2017
Blasphemy laws are usually concerned with protecting the image of God as interpreted and depicted by particular religions. Unfortunately these depictions are contaminated with projections of ill-informed and under-developed human minds, operating without the insights arising from the gradual accumulation of relevant data about God, human nature and the workings of God's Providence. The behaviour of extremists like ISIS and courts affected by extremists should be charged with bringing Islam into disrepute. Likewise far-right Christians bring Christianity into disrepute, trying to deify their interpretation and identify it with God, instead of seeing it as ONE Path among many that can lead us to God.
16 May 2017
Thanks Pat for this great analysis. Indonesia is a largely moderate Muslim country, with many Indonesians sharing so called 'Australian' values like respect of women, love of family and a good sense of humour. As you say, Christians and Muslims alike are concerned about the jailing of Ahok. Indonesia dearly needs leaders like Ahok in its growing modern international cities. The public floral poster tributes for Ahok are touching. The impact of fundamentalism must be guarded against by all countries. Our family greatly enjoyed spending new year in Jakarta in 2016. We must remember cities like Jakarta express a freedom that is hated by ISIL, as witnessed with the sad attacks on police in 2016. I pray, with many Muslim people of Indonesia, that Ahok is freed quickly and before this fundamentalism further damages the reputation of the wonderful city of Jakarta and its people.
16 May 2017
Can you get this to a wider audience - the ABC or OpEd pages in mainstream media? This drum needs to banged louder.
16 May 2017
This is an interesting but troubling account
16 May 2017
Thank you Pat. Your description of what Ahok was accused of and your assurances that there are many sections of Indonesian society are both clarifying and encouraging. I was wondering what NU's position in this matter is and so thanks to for the contribution of Peter Stanton. We too have extremism in our history and as part of present day society. As shocking as the decision of the Indonesian Judiciary is on this issue, avoiding steriotyping and generalisations about whole nations based on prejudice of sub-groups is important continuously reaffirm.
17 May 2017
Thank you for a most illuminating article on issues poorly covered by the Australian media. Like Peter Stanton I have a great deal of concern that what is happening in Indonesia is far from an isolated event. Governments globally appear to be moving away from a liberal democratic stance towards a more fascist hard line nationalist one. We should do all we can to support the Indonesian Government to uphold its constitution which gives non Muslims certain rights too.
17 May 2017
Peter Stanton's comment is the only one so far to add anything of substance to Pat's insightful article. Our Saudi 'friends' have, once again, been funding the rise of the sort of 'Islam' - often condemned by more mainstream Muslims - that led to the rise of Al Quaida and the Taliban. There is a real power struggle worldwide for the soul of Islam and the control of the Umma (Muslim community). There were always extreme Muslims in Indonesia viz Darul Islam; parts of Sulawesi and others. Of course there are local Indonesian factors at play as well. What happened and will happen to Ahok is a disturbing sign of where Indonesia may be going. I fear that, now that the genie of ethno-religious politics has been released it will be very difficult to put it back into the bottle. Let us hope that Ahok's imprisonment does not represent the Indonesian equivalent of Kristallnacht. Those who played the race/religion card in this instance may live to regret they did so. The brave souls who supported and support Ahok - many Muslims among them - are to be applauded. We in Australia need to know they exist and to support them.