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Freedom of speech has never been as highly valued in the Muslim world as it has in the West. This is especially the case where matters of religion are concerned. The individual Muslim, and indeed non-Muslims living under Islam, must tread very carefully when referring to Muhammad and the Quran.
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Crossing the line on such topics can easily lead to charges of blasphemy. This is particularly a problem in Pakistan, where trumped-up blasphemy charges have become commonplace, often being used to settle personal scores. Many Christians are currently languishing in Pakistani prisons, awaiting trial on charges of blasphemy.
Thus, when the present governor of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama, was charged with blasphemy last fall, it would have been easy to overlook his case as just one more among many such around the world. But the case has received significant media attention—and deservedly so.
A Different Place
Indonesia has long been considered one of the most moderate parts of the Muslim world. Indeed, when I lived in Jakarta for several years in the 1980s, few women wore head coverings, marriages between Christians and Muslims were not uncommon, and a conversion in either direction between these two faiths did not cause the level of social disruption that was commonly seen in other parts of the Muslim world.
But Indonesia in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a very different place. The public symbols of Islamic identity are far more evident. It is very common to see head coverings on Muslim women now; indeed, in certain sectors of society, social pressure compels women to cover themselves. Even language has been affected, with Arabic terms from the Islamic vocabulary having infiltrated the Indonesian language to a far greater extent than was the case thirty years ago.
Changes like these are not unusual or surprising in the rest of the Islamic world. Indonesia, however, is a special case. With 240 million people, 88 percent of whom are Muslim, Indonesia ranks fourth in population among the world's nations, and first among Muslim-majority countries. So trends in Indonesia should not be ignored; a drift from moderate to conservative Islam should make outsiders take notice. And this is exactly what is happening, as evidenced by the blasphemy trial of Jakarta's governor.
In September 2016, the governor visited Indonesia's Thousand Islands as a step in laying the groundwork for his re-election campaign. (The February election yielded no clear winner, so a run-off is scheduled for April.) Mr. Purnama, or Ahok as he is more popularly known, was aware that his Islamist opponents had been quoting the Quran against his candidacy. In particular, they had quoted chapter 5, verse 51, which instructs Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as their "allies." Ahok is a Christian, and Islamists argued on the basis of this verse that the Muslims of Jakarta should not be led by a Christian governor.
In a speech on September 27 a frustrated Ahok stated that his opponents had misused that particular Quranic verse. This was like a red rag to a bull for the Islamists, who, after conferring among themselves, laid a charge of blasphemy against the governor for having dared to interpret the Quran as a non-Muslim.
Indonesia's most infamous radical Islamic groups quickly moved to whip up frenzied crowds against the governor; they organized mass demonstrations in both November and December, at which up to 200,000 screaming Islamists demanded that the governor to be tried for blasphemy. Under such pressures, the police buckled and moved ahead with a blasphemy trial, which was underway at the time of writing. If found guilty, Ahok could face up to five years in jail.
Background & Subtext
Beneath the particular blasphemy charge levelled against the governor for his comments about a Quranic verse, there is an intricate subtext to this case. This subtext has several key features.
First, the fall of the military regime of President Suharto in 1998 opened Indonesia up to a period of democratic reform. However, diverse groups can thrive in a democratic environment, including ones whose primary goal is to undermine the democratic process.
The last twenty years in Indonesia have seen the emergence of a range of highly conservative Islamist groups whose overriding goal is to turn Indonesia into a sharia-based Islamic state. Initially, these groups, some of which are linked to the international Muslim Brotherhood, tried to achieve their goals through the ballot box, but in the four national elections held since the fall of President Suharto, Islamist parties have struggled to win more than 10 percent of the popular vote. So these groups have turned to less democratic means, using standover tactics, intimidation, and mass public protest in pursuit of their ambitions. Targeting Ahok, a liberally minded Chinese Christian, gave them another opportunity to further their sharia-based plans.
Second, while the focus of Islamist energies at present may fall upon the unfortunate governor of Jakarta, their greater plan is to undermine the influence of the liberally minded nationalist political groups that have come to dominate the parliamentary scene over the last twenty years. The current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, embodies everything that Islamist groups are struggling against, being intellectual, moderate in his Muslim faith, democratically inclined, and liberal in his thinking. In effect, the Islamist campaign against Governor Ahok is merely a stage on the journey to overthrowing President Widodo.
Third, the Islamist plan to establish Indonesia as an Islamic state encompasses more than political control; it concerns every area of human activity, including relations between the religions. Open relations between Indonesian Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities—including easy conversion and inter-marriage—and the leadership of non-Muslims over Muslims are anathema to Islamist groups. Their stated goal is to shape the Indonesian nation according to the dictates of sharia law, which defines the roles for Muslims and non-Muslims alike in great detail. The outlook for Indonesian Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus in such a state would be bleak indeed.
An Ongoing Struggle
President Widodo has insisted that Governor Ahok's trial be publicly broadcast to ensure an open scrutiny of the process, a wise move given the pressure tactics being applied on the judges by Islamist groups. Even so, a guilty verdict for the governor is the most likely outcome.
But this case is merely one event in an ongoing struggle between conservative Islamist groups and moderate, democratically inclined political and social leaders. The future of Indonesia hangs in the balance. Ahok's blasphemy case serves as a barometer, with Indonesian democrats, nationalists, and Christians, as well as outside observers, watching it with baited breath in order to better gauge Indonesia's future direction. •
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