The only Christian governor in Indonesia is being investigated by police as a suspect in a blasphemy case, amid on-going calls from Muslim groups for his imprisonment.
Investigators questioned the Governor of Jakarta, Barsuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok”, for eight hours at the National Police headquarters in South Jakarta last week.
The outcry against Ahok began after he quoted a verse in the Qur’an that forbids using the Islamic scripture for political gains in a speech he made in early October. Some Muslim leaders accused him of insulting Islam by quoting from the Qur’an, and he apologised.
An edited version of his speech was posted online and went viral, sparking outrage. At a mass rally in the Indonesian capital on 4 Nov., demonstrators called for Ahok’s removal from power. On 16 Nov., police declared that he was being investigated.
The incident coincides with a rise in terror attacks targeting Christians, and Christians, rights activists and moderate politicians fear Indonesia’s increasingly fragile secular constitution is under strain.
Muslim leaders have called for the public to respect the legal process while the investigation continues. But the outrage caused by the speech, spearheaded by radical Muslim groups, has increased concerns that the majority-Muslim republic is swaying towards extremism.
Last week, Indonesian police gave permission for a large-scale rally against Ahok to take place on Friday (2 Dec). Earlier this month, the National Movement to Save Indonesia Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) mobilised tens of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of the capital in protest on 4 Nov. Estimates of the number of participants varied between 50,000 and 150,000.
In response, rallies were held on 19 Nov. in support of the ethnic-Chinese Christian leader, UCAN reported. Christians, activist groups and moderate Muslim politicians have expressed solidarity with minority religious and ethnic groups against the tide of growing intolerance. Ahok said he has no intention to give up his place as the republic’s first Christian governor for decades, and has remained positive about his re-election bid.
The Ahok case is one of a series of incidents that have seen radicals challenge secular political and civil affairs. In August, a teenage man attacked a priest with an axe during a Mass in Medan, North Sumatra, and failed to detonate a bomb in his backpack. Earlier this month, a two-year-old child died and three other young children were injured when a man threw petrol bombs at a Protestant church in East Kalimantan Province. Some Indonesian Christians said they fear the attack was connected to Ahok’s case.
Two terrorism experts said last week that a five-year national de-radicalisation programme had not succeeded in reducing extremism. Analysts have been especially concerned by moderate Muslims’ hostility towards Ahok. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of moderate Muslims rallied alongside hardliners. The Muslim Times ran an opinion piece arguing that Ahok losing his blasphemy case could be the tipping point for a republic once upheld as a model of pluralism and stable democracy in a shift towards a more conservative form of Islam.
From 2004 to 2014, blasphemy cases in Indonesia had a 100 per cent conviction rate. Human rights campaigner Andreas Harsono voiced concerns that the accusation may be being used as a “political tool” to derail Ahok’s re-election campaign.
For Christians, much hangs in the balance. Some see their on-going security and freedom tied to the fate of the accused governor of Jakarta. With a lengthy legal process ahead for Ahok, the coming months could hold much uncertainty for them as well.