Tens of thousands of Muslim protesters gathered in Jakarta to demand that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of the Indonesian capital, be arrested for insulting Islam.
The protesters chanting, praying, and carrying banners, congregated at the national monument in Jakarta on Friday, December 2, 2016. Purnama, widely known as Ahok, has caused outrage in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country over comments he made about his opponents’ use of the Koran in campaigning. Ahok, Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor in half a century, has apologized for the remarks but denies wrongdoing and the case of alleged blasphemy is currently going through the courts.
Al Jazeera reports that police officials estimated that there were at least 150,000 protesters, while other reports put the number in the several hundreds of thousands. There was heavy security at the rally on Friday as authorities were on high alert after a similar demonstration on November 4, turned violent. According to local news agency Antara, 100 people were injured in clashes with police.
While the December protest, the biggest the city has seen in decades, remained largely peaceful, Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, describes the protest as “an extremely big show of force by Islamist groups who have been gaining importance in Indonesia over the years.” Although Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it recognizes six religions and is comprised of dozens of ethnic groups, many of whom have their own traditions. The blasphemy can be seen as a test of religious tolerance for the secular democracy, where minorities have come under attack in recent years.
In response to the increasing religious and ethnic tension of late, President Joko Widodo has made a call for unity, but critics accuse his government of failing to do enough to rein in hardline groups. Widodo, a political ally of Ahok, made an appearance at the demonstration in December and thanked the crowd for their peaceful protest before requesting they return home.
The first court session of the trial commenced on December 13, but not without prostest, Ahoks’ lawyers called for the courts to dismiss the case on the grounds that it had violated the ethnic Chinese politician’s human rights and breached procedures. The call was rejected by a panel of judges in late December, and the case will proceed as planned.
A verdict is expected to be reached in the coming weeks, and either outcome will have precarious consequences for the nation. If Ahok, an elected official and ethnic Chinese Christian, is jailed on blasphemy charges it will set a dangerous precedent. Such a result can be seen as a threat to the secular state as conservative Muslims gain power and wield more influence. This is not only concerning for the minorities in Indonesia, but it also has the potential to damage Indonesia’s global relationships, especially with the West, who Indonesia has been forging close diplomatic and economic ties with recently.
However, if Ahok is not found guilty such a result will not appease the thousands who turned out in protest. Supporters of Ahok believe the move to be politically motivated, but many conservative Muslims feel personally insulted by the governor’s remarks, and if Ahok is not found guilty, there exists a real possibility that Muslims may, again, take to the streets in large numbers. Given the nature of the November protests, there is warranted concern that further protests could be violent, even deadly.
While either outcome presents a number of problems, as the case proceeds, we hope that the courts do so fairly and with real consideration for the secular constitution of the state of Indonesia. It was announced that President Widodo will not intervene in the blasphemy case, however, he has a real responsibility to strengthen unity within the divided state and do more to curb hardline groups. Otherwise, Indonesia, who is often heralded as an example of a successful secular and democratic Muslim majority country, will fall to rising religiosity both within politics and civil society.