The Indonesian Christian governor on trial for blasphemy said yesterday (4 April) that he has been the target of racist and religious attacks since he was elected to public office in 2005.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”), the governor of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, also reiterated to the court  his belief that the Qur’anic verse at the centre of his trial – Al Maidah 51 – does not tell Muslims they cannot vote for a Christian. (The verse instructs Muslims to “not take the Jews and the Christians as allies”.)

Ahok’s trial, which has overshadowed his campaigning for election as Governor of Jakarta, is being seen by some commentators as a test of Indonesia’s commitment to pluralism. Photo: Jakarta Post video

Speaking on the final day of witness testimony, he criticised his opponents’ interpretation of the contentious verse. He said he had insisted that it does not forbid Muslims from choosing a Christian governor. Ahok also said that hard-line cleric Rizieq Shihab, who on account of this argument had accused him of “insulting Islam”, was “a liar”.

On Monday (3 April), before Ahok’s appearance in court, a senior figure in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s biggest Islamic organisation, said the verse was being deliberately misinterpreted by Mr. Shihab and other conservatives in order to unseat Ahok in Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections, which conclude later this month.

The NU’s supreme council secretary-general, Yahya Cholil Staquf, told ABC: “What I believe is that Ahok is not guilty, and the case that he is charged with, it has all been a manipulative thing going on for the purpose of the election.”

Ahok was charged with blasphemy after accusing his political opponents of using Qur’anic verses to stop Muslims from voting for him. Ahok had been labelled an “infidel” (a derogatory word for non-Muslims) by some  of his opponents in the elections.

Protestors took to the streets of Jakarta in opposition to their Christian governor after he was accused of blasphemy. Photo: World Watch Monitor

In the first round of elections, on 15 February, Ahok led with 42 per cent of the vote. But this fell short of the required 50 per cent + 1 vote needed to win. Therefore, the election commission called for another round of voting, which will take place on 19 April.

In the next round, his political opponent will be the former Minister of Education and Culture, Anies Baswedan, who followed a close second with 40 per cent of the vote.

Even if Ahok were to win the second round, he might still lose the governorship if he is found guilty of blasphemy. According to Indonesian law, a regional head who is a defendant in a court case must be suspended from office if the punishment exceeds five years. The Penal Code 156 and 156A used in Ahok’s case put each sentence to a maximum of four and five years’ imprisonment, respectively.

This scenario has many Indonesians asking if this could be the real face of Indonesia. Is the country, the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world, still democratic and tolerant? Or has it become a conservative country whose laws are becoming strictly compliant with Islamic rules, with the rights of minorities forced to give way to the rights of Muslims?

Ahok rose to be very popular, and was voted Asia’s Best Governor in 2015 by The Globe Asia magazine. Before his blasphemy charge, more than one survey showed that more than 80 per cent of Jakartans were satisfied with his performance.

“According to the survey, the governor’s electability has in part been boosted by tangible proof of his work while serving as governor, as well as his firm and straightforward style in leading the Jakarta administration. Jakartans also believe Ahok’s performance in areas such as health, public service and electricity provision is improving,” the Jakarta Post noted.

However, minority groups such as Christians are worried. The margin between Ahok, a Christian, and Anies, a Muslim and a newcomer to politics, in the first round of elections was extremely narrow. Two surveys last year showed that after he was named as a blasphemy suspect in November his popularity ratings fell – one by 20 per cent, another by more than 40 per cent, even while Jakartans’ satisfaction with his performance was still high.

A Bahasa Indonesian edition of the survey said that Jakartans were still satisfied with Ahok’s work but chose not to vote for him because of his case. This suggests that even moderate Muslims preferred to relinquish their support for him, even though the accusations against him were unproven.

So the second round of elections in Jakarta could be seen as a battle between pluralism and fundamentalism in the country. After all, Jakarta is known as a “mini-Indonesia” and a symbol of the nation’s diversity.

Fighting corruption and reforming Jakarta

Ahok was not elected as Jakarta’s governor, but rose to the position when the former governor, Joko Widodo, was elected president in 2014. During both their administrations, Jakarta has been reformed: flooding and heavy traffic, for which it was famous, have been effectively reduced and the city’s public transport has improved.

In this year’s run for governorship, Ahok pledged to continue to improve Jakarta’s infrastructure and governance.

“We will still provide free access to health, education, better housing and transportation. But my biggest goal is for a clean administration and to educate the people about good governance,” he said.

Ahok’s battle against Jakarta’s corrupted bureaucratic core has attracted many supporters, who long for clean and upright officials. But he has also attracted enemies — the old breed of political actors and officials, who feel threatened by his determination to fight corruption. The fact that Ahok is a Christian and of Chinese descent, both attributes of minority groups in Indonesia, makes it easy to do that. And the weapon they chose to accomplish that goal – religious fanaticism – has proven to be effective, as in other countries in Southeast Asia.

One radical Muslim group, the Islamic Front Defenders (FPI), has been involved in politics since 2009, although this has been denied many times by its chief, Rizieq Shihab. However, it is common knowledge that political parties and actors “use” FPI: its members are sometimes nicknamed “pasukan nasi bungkus,” meaning “people who are paid to participate in a demonstration”.

Since Ahok became governor of Jakarta, FPI has strongly voiced its opposition to his leadership, arguing that a non-Muslim should not rule over Muslims – a position backed by Indonesia’s Ulama Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body. Huge demonstrations have been held against him.

With the elections for governor round the corner, pressure is mounting on the central government to suspend Ahok. However, the Minister of Home Affairs, Tjahjo Kumolo, has refused to give in to the pressure, saying he will wait until after the public prosecutor announces its verdict on the blasphemy trial.

‘History chose me for this position’

At the start of the trial, in December 2016, Ahok looked upset and angry, as he was filmed by the lenses of national television cameras. At one point, the statesman was even caught crying. But he is now more upbeat and says his case has allowed crucial questions to be placed before all Indonesians.

“Our founding fathers created the nation as a secular republic, based on the concept of ‘unity in diversity’, but they want to force the implementation of Islamic law. How come? So, I’m happy that history chose me for this position. I am not afraid of losing my position for doing what is right,” he said. “We must really have faith in God according to our religion. I have faith in Isa [‘Jesus’ in Arabic]. And I have faith about where I belong and where I will go when I die — and that’s why I’m not afraid to lose my life. In all I’ve been through, Jesus has always protected me and provided for all my needs.”