Indonesian politics has been rocked by two major developments in recent months, both involving the governor of Indonesia’s capital and most important city, Jakarta. The first came on April 19, when the sitting governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — better known by his nickname “Ahok” — was decisively defeated in a gubernatorial election. Ahok’s defeat is surprising given his general popularity among Jakarta voters, with an astonishing 76 percent of voters approving of his record of office.
The second came several weeks later, when courts sentenced Ahok to two years in prison for blasphemy — for comments he made in a speech referencing a verse in the Koran that some Muslims believe forbids them from voting for a non-Muslim politician. Indonesian law protects freedom of religion and religious expression, but makes blasphemy illegal as a threat to public order and religious values. Ahok’s opponents used doctored recordings of these comments to make the case that he had insulted Islam.
Ahok’s personal and political background
Ahok is a “double minority” in the Indonesian context: He is a Christian in a country that is 87 percent Muslim. And he is of ethnic Chinese decent in a country where ethnic Chinese minorities have long faced persecution and discrimination but are viewed as being generally wealthier than Indonesians of other backgrounds.
Indonesia’s Christian politicians tend to find electoral success in regions with local Christian majorities. Indonesia’s Chinese politicians are comparatively few— and Ahok occupied one of the most powerful political offices in Indonesia. Jakarta is a city of 20 million people, but it is still roughly 85 percent Muslim — and only about 5 percent of its population claims Chinese heritage.
Also critical for understanding Ahok is the fact that he was never elected governor of Jakarta. Instead, he was elected vice-governor of Jakarta in 2012, on a ticket headed by Joko Widodo. An ethnic Javanese Muslim, Widodo resigned his position to run successfully for Indonesia’s presidency in 2014, and that is how Ahok became governor.
As a result, the 2017 gubernatorial election campaign was the first time Ahok was tested at the top of the ticket in Jakarta. Despite approval ratings that far exceed those of most other politicians in Indonesia and elsewhere, Ahok faced stiff opposition. He faced withering criticism for his housing policy, which sought to control informal urban settlements (sometimes termed slums or squatter settlements) by evicting their residents with promises of resettlement elsewhere.
Ahok also has a personal reputation that matches some of the more negative stereotypes of ethnic Chinese Indonesians: He is seen as direct, abrupt and coarse in his manner of speech, inconsistent with the refined demeanor usually cultivated by Indonesia’s ethnic Javanese politicians.
Indonesia, a contemporary Muslim democracy?
But far more attention has been paid to religious discourse. Ahok’s opponent, the new governor-elect Anies Baswedan, courted the Muslim vote, exploiting and nurturing the sentiment among Jakarta’s Muslim voters that, indeed, Muslims could not vote for a Christian. He also appeared before the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line Islamist group, in a move seen as allying himself with more radical streams in Indonesian Islam. For a politician such as Anies with a reputation as a moderate Muslim, this was a meaningful shift.
The Jakarta election and Ahok’s blasphemy case are therefore interpreted by many as two “tests” of Indonesia’s democracy. Can Indonesia’s plural society resist the exploitation of identity for political gain? And can Indonesia’s legal system look past headline-grabbing allegations of blasphemy to see factually baseless charges for what they are? For many who look to Indonesia as a standard-bearer for contemporary Muslim democracy, the results have been disappointing.
Islam as a political identity
Scholars of Indonesian politics have interpreted these events through two frameworks: one based on class and another on identity. Was Ahok undone primarily because of his religion or ethnicity, or because of his perceived indifference to the plight of Jakarta’s urban poor? Some early survey-based research suggested that Ahok would suffer because of his Chinese heritage, but more recent research targeting the large segment of voters who supported Ahok’s performance in office but voted against him anyway finds that religious motivations drove their decisions.
The Ahok case thus contributes to the view that Islam as a political identity rather than as a spiritual platform appears to be increasingly mobilizing for political gain. Many of Indonesia’s emerging middle class are indeed rather pious, but not particularly radical. And Indonesian voters don’t generally prefer Islamist parties over multi-religious parties, they tend to prefer competent parties over incompetent ones. Yet exclusionary ideas can shape the political debate, even if Indonesian’s population remains generally accepting of a multi-religious Indonesian population. One such idea is that Ahok as governor upsets the natural order of Indonesian politics because he is not a Muslim.
In an important recent contribution to the study of religion and politics, political scientist Jeremy Menchik calls this tolerance without liberalism. This phrase denotes a situation in which diversity exists and is sincerely valued, but without the concomitant acceptance of the rights of individuals to criticize other faiths, or to follow “deviationist” religious traditions (such as Shiite Islam in Indonesia). Diversity, in other words, must not threaten social order.
Not surprisingly, many Indonesian progressives, liberals and religious and ethnic minorities find such a system to be worrisome. So, too, do some Muslim religious leaders themselves, who understand how invoking public order to regulate religious practice may ultimately lead to a narrow view of what forms of Islam are accepted as legitimate. In this way, the Ahok case may prove to have long-lasting implications not just for non-Muslim minority communities in Indonesia, but also for Indonesia’s Muslim majority.
Thomas Pepinsky is associate professor of government and associate director of the Modern Indonesia Project at Cornell University.