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Blasphemy charges against Ahok a triumph for Islamists in Indonesia

Note: this article first appeared in the East Asia Forum

One of the most high profile blasphemy allegations may soon be brought before a court in Indonesia. Thousands of Islamists turned out in Jakarta recently to demand that Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, the Governor of Jakarta, be charged with blaspheming Islam. Some protestors displayed sinister signs, demanding that he be put to death. The rally presented an immediate security concern for the Indonesian government.

But this issue is likely to drag on. The Islamic Defenders Front, a notorious radical Islamic group in Indonesia, has already filed a complaint against Ahok with the police. In a significant escalation, on 16 November police announced that the governor had been made a suspect in a blasphemy investigation and would move quickly to prepare a case for prosecutors.

The complaint relates to an event on 27 September at which Ahok made reference to a verse of the Quran, al-Maidah 51. The verse, which warns Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies, is often used by Islamists as a reason why Muslims should not support Ahok as a politician. Ahok is both Christian and Chinese, a double minority in Indonesia. He claims that the video that went viral online butchered his actual speech and took it out of context. Regardless, he is now being accused of blaspheming Islam.

This should come as no surprise. Prosecuting Ahok would fit within a broader trend over the past two decades in Indonesia of charging people who have allegedly blasphemed Islam.

The blasphemy law has been central to tensions between religious authority and the state in post-1998 Indonesia. From 1965 when the law was introduced up until the fall of Suharto in 1998 there were as few as 10 cases brought to the courts. Most of these appear to have been politically motivated.

But beginning with the Lia Eden case in 1997 — a woman who considered herself to be the Angel Gabriel — there has been a sharp increase in blasphemy prosecutions.

While the number of cases is not as drastic as the situation in Pakistan, there have still been over 130 people convicted for blaspheming a religion in Indonesia in the past two decades. Most of these people were convicted for blaspheming Islam. Some did hold unconventional or eccentric views, but most appear to have been harmless.

A large number of people who have been found guilty of blasphemy have been Christian. This data is skewed by one particular court case where 41 Christians were tried for blaspheming Islam.

An equally large number of people who were found guilty of blaspheming Islam ironically identify as Muslim. This is because many cases have concerned the perceived need for some Islamic religious leaders to police ‘correct’ Islamic teachings and exercise the authority to decide who is, or is not, a ‘Muslim’.

So what might happen to Ahok? If a case is brought forward, it would first need to be heard in a District Court. Given the controversy and high profile nature of this case, there is likely to be a strong Islamist presence at the court, which could potentially result in intimidation and violence. Courtrooms have been burnt down in Indonesia before as a result of blasphemy proceedings.

If the court found against Ahok, he may have the opportunity to appeal up to the Supreme Court, although the Supreme Court has never overturned a blasphemy conviction.

It would also appear that Ahok could not challenge the constitutionality of the blasphemy law itself. There have already been two failed constitutional challenges.

The first case in 2010 was brought by non-government organisations who were broadly in support of religious freedom. The Constitutional Court held that the law fits within the framework of regulating religion in Indonesia. It rejected the argument that the court should step in just because the blasphemy law might at times be misused.

A second case was brought in 2013 in response to criminal charges brought against Shiites. The applicants were petitioning the court on the grounds that Shiites and their beliefs are an integral part of the Muslim community in Indonesia. On this basis, they suggested, Shiites cannot be accused of blaspheming Islam. But again the Constitutional Court showed little interest in intervening in these religious debates and dismissed the case.

The allegations against Ahok, if the case went to trial, would attract a penalty of up to five years jail. Statistics show that a majority of people who have been found guilty of blasphemy in Indonesia have received between three to five years jail. There’s not a lot of hope for a light sentence.

The best case scenario is that the attention this issue has received may prompt a rethinking of the blasphemy law in its current form, or at the least encourage conversation about the need for safeguards to ensure it is not misused for political purposes.

The worst case scenario could see Ahok behind bars for five years. If this is the case, it would be yet another triumph for a small group of Islamists who have had a disproportionate influence on public debates on religion in Indonesia over the past twenty years.

For the full version of this article, please see East Asia Forum, 17 November 2016.

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