The reports are greatly exaggerated: Liberal, multicultural democracy in Indonesia isn’t dead yet.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is commonly called “Ahok,” recently lost the gubernatorial election in Jakarta, the capital, after his rivals waged an ugly campaign against his ethnicity and his religion: Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, and Ahok is ethnic Chinese and Christian. Then this week he was handed an especially harsh prison sentence for a dubious charge of blasphemy.
Ahok’s loss at the polls came as a surprise. Jakarta’s governor since 2014, he was well known and well liked for his administration’s efforts to fix the city’s failing infrastructure, among other things. Some credible surveys placed his approval rating at an enviable 70 percent or more. But his being Chinese and Christian apparently began to matter after he challenged an interpretation of a Quranic verse that claims Muslims shouldn’t be led by non-Muslims.
Firebrand preachers seized on his comment to declare — including, illegally, during Friday sermons — that anyone who voted for him would face dire consequences on Judgment Day. Others accused him of being an agent of China, an inflammatory claim given the history of anti-Communist violence in Indonesia.
Ahok was charged with blasphemy for his comment about the Quran, and on May 9 a court sentenced him to two years in prison, effective immediately, and banned him from holding public office for life. This happened even though the prosecution, having presented in court a parade of incompetent and unreliable witnesses, had wound up dropping the blasphemy charge and asking instead for a suspended sentence for incitement to hatred.
Ahok has appealed the conviction, but for many observers the sentence itself established that some judges, in addition to conniving politicians, are now willing to do the bidding of Muslim fundamentalists and their mobs. It looks like springtime for Indonesia’s Islamist radicals.
But is it?
For one thing, Ahok’s election loss must be considered in a larger context. Despite his popularity, he was a flawed candidate. Blunt and brash, he made a hard push for urban-development programs, and alienated many poor people who had to be relocated after their slums were cleared out. His administration failed to convince evictees of the policy’s long-term benefits — better sanitation, health care, education — allowing Islamist groups to prey on fears about mounting economic inequality.
Ahok could also have done more to showcase his administration’s efforts to reform Jakarta’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy and better manage chronic flooding in the capital. Instead, he and his campaign team spent considerable energy counterattacking radical preachers — in effect, taking the bait and unwittingly making sectarianism the central issue of the race.
Yet now, Ahok’s sudden demise may jolt many moderates into opposing the growing threat from the radicals.
Granted, religious intolerance has been intensifying for years, especially among the young — and their teachers — in schools and universities. A 2015 survey of 700 high school students by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace found that 1 in 14 respondents supported the Islamic State.
But this week protesters were quick to stage peaceful rallies throughout Indonesia to denounce Ahok’s conviction. And public opinion surveys suggest that the vast majority of Indonesian Muslims are still moderate and still support democracy.
In an exit poll conducted by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, one of the most respected pollsters in Indonesia, after the second round of the Jakarta election last month, more than 58 percent of respondents did say they believed non-Muslims should not lead Muslims. Far more important, however, nearly 87 percent of respondents said that Jakarta was not an Islamic province, and Indonesia was not an Islamic state, and instead reaffirmed the national principles embedded in the 1945 Constitution.
The Ahok case may also unexpectedly wind up playing into the hands of moderate politicians. Just one day before his conviction, the government of President Joko Widodo finally decided to ban Hizbut Tahrir, a radical group that has called for replacing Indonesian democracy with an Islamic caliphate and imposing Shariah law throughout the country. Nahdlatul Ulama, one of Indonesia’s biggest moderate Muslim organizations, applauded the move.
At the same time, Mr. Joko, a longtime ally of Ahok, has wisely refrained from commenting on Ahok’s conviction. This insulates him somewhat from accusations that he is protecting a blasphemer, a claim that radical organizations would surely have seized on, especially ahead of the 2019 presidential election. If Mr. Joko can continue to walk this fine line — tapping the concern of moderates without provoking the radicals outright — he might be able to turn the uproar over the Ahok affair into real momentum, perhaps even a political movement, to stem the advance of radicalism in Indonesia.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the School of Government at Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani, in Cimahi, Bandung, Indonesia.