THE blasphemy trial of the Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, began on Tuesday of last week (News, 16 December). Prosecutors launched the event by accusing Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama of intentionally misinterpreting a Qur’anic verse during a speech on a working visit to Indonesia’s Thousand Islands region on 27 September.
The Governor, better known by his nickname “Ahok”, replied to the charges in tears, saying: “I did not intend to misinterpret Surah Al- Maidah 5.51, nor commit blasphemy, nor insult Islamic scholars. I referred to certain politicians who had mis-used Surah Al-Maidah 5.51 to avoid fair competition prior to upcoming regional elections.”
The verse contains the instruction: “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies.”
While world media outlets focus on this unfolding blasphemy trial in today’s Indonesia, the subtext to this event has deep roots in history.
WHEN Indonesia attained its independence in the 1940s, the new nation was preoccupied with defining its identity. Indonesia is diverse in terms of its ethnic, cultural, and linguistic make-up. In order to build a united nation, the Malay language, previously spoken by most Indonesians as a second language, was adopted as the national language. The official national motto was articulated as “Unity in Diversity”, demonstrating the delicate balance that was sought between respect for difference and a quest for cohesion.
In this context, the resident Chinese minority that had resulted from immigration during the Dutch colonial period, and which had preserved Chinese culture, customs, and language, was seen by some as an alien implant. Anti-Chinese sentiment had long been present among the different Indonesian communities. This sentiment has exploded in ugly ways at several points during the past 70 years.
In the wake of the abortive coup d’état of 1965, the regime of the new President Suharto forced the Chinese to adopt Indonesian names, and to discontinue cultural festivals. Chinese-language schools were closed, and the result has been the loss of the linguistic-cultural heritage of the Chinese Indonesian community over the past 50 years.
The fall of the Suharto regime, in 1998, brought a period of social disarray. Chinese people were targeted: hundreds were killed, and many Chinese women were raped.
Nevertheless, the new era of democratic reform brought with it new efforts to express multicultural respect for Chinese Indonesians. Laws were passed to allow them to use their former Chinese names, and to celebrate Chinese festivals. In 2004, the Chinese New Year was recognised as a public holiday.
So, when Ahok became the first ethnic Chinese Governor of Jakarta, in 2014, many liberally minded Indonesians were supportive. His appointment, however, was greeted with dismay by some others, who continued to harbour anti-Chinese sentiment.
THE second focus of the struggle for identity in the new nation of Indonesia relates to religion. In the 1940s, the independence movement was split between those who sought to establish a nation that accepted religious pluralism, and allowed democratic parliamentary processes, and those who sought to establish an Islamic state based on sharia.The ascendancy of the former led to the country’s adopting an official state philosophy, the Pancasila, which defines its first principle as respecting the one God as worshipped by Muslims, Christians (Roman Catholics and Protestants were differentiated), Hindus, and Buddhists. In response, conservative Islamist groups revolted, and, in the ensuing Darul Islam rebellion, thousands of people died before its eventual defeat in 1962.
The Suharto regime (1966-98) imposed tight limits on political expressions of Islam for most of its rule. So, with the democratic reforms after 1998, Islamist groups, long starved of a political platform, were quick to establish new political parties, and to contest national elections in the hope of reviving their dreams of an Islamic state.
In the event, their dreams led to disappointment. Although they won seats in the four national elections since 1998, they came nowhere near gaining a majority in parliament, garnering support of only about 8.3 per cent — or ten million votes — in the 2014 parliamentary elections. As a result, conservative Islamist groups have resorted to other means to pursue their aspirations, such as mass rallies, intimidation, and the disruption of church construction and worship services, besides levelling blasphemy charges against their perceived adversaries.
Governor Ahok is not only Chinese, he is also a Christian. Conservative Islamist groups in Indonesia have long invoked the Qur’an, Surah Al-Maidah 5.51, to oppose the leadership of Muslim communities by non-Muslims. In Indonesia, conservative Muslim groups often interpret the term “allies” as “leaders”. This represented a challenge to the concept of having a Christian governor for the capital city, Jakarta.
The blasphemy trial of Governor Ahok must run its course. It has been scheduled to continue this week, after an adjournment. The chances of the Governor’s being acquitted are slim: in more than 50 blasphemy trials since 2004, there has not been a single acquittal. Even if the Governor were to be acquitted, he would be at risk from Islamist vigilante groups; so his position is bleak. Realistically, he faces a prison sentence of up to five years, the maximum if found guilty of blasphemy.
This trial represents a window into the future for Indonesia. Islamist groups will continue to push for increased influence, with the ultimate goal of establishing a sharia-based state. There is widespread opposition to this push from the broader Indonesian population — both Muslim and non-Muslim — which is reflected in voting patterns in past elections.
The tragic irony is that democratic reform since 1998, for which so many Indonesians yearned during the Suharto years, has opened the way for the flourishing of groups whose very raison d’être is anti-democratic and anti-pluralist. Indonesia faces challenging times in years to come.
Professor Peter Riddell is vice-principal academic at Melbourne School of Theology, and Professorial Research Associate in History at SOAS, University of London.