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Indonesia’s image of a pluralist society shaken

HONG KONG (SE): The election campaign for the governorship of Jakarta, the capital city of the world’s most populous Muslim nation, saw the unpicking of the many hard-fought for values that have gone together to make Indonesia a genuine electoral democracy, with religious and ethnic pluralism.

The best of what it proclaims in its national motto, Unity in Diversity, has been severely shaken if not totally denied.

In a contest that pundits scored too close to call, the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of hardline mob-agitators putting their weight behind Anies Baswedan.

Ahok became governor of Jakarta in 2014 as the deputy to the new-president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, who had stepped down from the post in order to run his successful presidential campaign.

Recognised as a governor who brought a lot of improvements to the city, albeit often in a hard handed kind of way, Ahok found himself the butt of a campaign that began with a charge of blasphemy being slapped against him, leaving him with some 70 per cent of the sprawling city of 20 million saying that he had been a good governor, but only 40 per cent that they were prepared to vote for him.

Ahok had two things running against him. He is a Christian in a 90 per cent Muslim nation and ethnically he is Chinese, a group that has been discriminated against for centuries.

The blasphemy charges relate to a campaign trail incident in which he made reference to a verse from the Qur’an that is often interpreted as meaning that non-Muslims should never rule over Muslims.

This verse had been quoted against Ahok when he first ran as the deputy to Widodo in 2012, but whereas it is interpreted differently in many parts of the Muslim world, the supremacy of the Muslim is the one that holds most sway in Indonesia.

Ahok had told a gathering that they were being fooled by people pushing this interpretation, but the word that spread was that he had insulted the Qur’an and a cleverly crafted media release, which made it to air, quoted him as saying, “You are being fooled by the Qur’an.”

The Jakarta Post described the campaign run against him by Anies, which concentrated almost solely on his religion and ethnicity, as being one of the dirtiest in the history of the city.

UCAN reported that during the campaign, supporters of Anies, led by a group called the Islamic Defenders Front, held a series of sectarian rallies, sometimes drawing hundreds of thousands of people and descending into looting raids after dark.

Yohanes Handoyo Budhisedjati, a political analyst and founder of Vox Point Indonesia, a Catholic political organisation, pointed out that political parties and religious groups behind Anies succeeded in maximising mosque networks as a base to get Muslim support.

“Their strength lies in their capability to mobilise people in the mosques around Jakarta,” Budhisedjati commented.

He said that the victory has also worried religious minority groups due to Anies’ close ties with the Islamic Defenders Front that often commits violence and acts of intolerance.

Habib Rizieq, a firebrand Islamist demagogue from the Front, even suggested to a mob that it should march on the presidential palace and overthrow the government at one particularly inflammatory moment.

Tim Lindsey, from the University of Melbourne, notes that the uproar that followed caused Widodo to cancel a visit to Australia at the last moment.

Then in an effort to quell the rising discontent against everything institutional in the city, Widodo made a decision to allow his former deputy to face the blasphemy charges.

Lindsey says, “Although most of the attacks on Ahok are framed in religious terms, they are also driven by his ethnicity. There must be doubt about whether his enemies could have brought hundreds of thousands out on the streets as they did twice last year if Ahok was not an ethnic Chinese.”

A survey carried out on this question revealed that it is his ethnicity that is the biggest point of contention. After all, Jakarta had a Christian governor in the past, but he was not ethnically Chinese!

The whole experience has left much to ponder. The fact that groups of people who really are effectively gangsters could stir up such feeling and even threaten a march on the government itself is disturbing.

It also leaves other politicians uneasy at the mayhem that was so easily generated, while the unscrupulous ponder new ways of playing the Islamist card.

The victor in the political melee is Anies, a well-respected academic with a reputation as a progressive Muslim intellectual.

While he personally did not engage in invective against Ahok, he did act as a Pied Piper courting the Islamist groups that were attacking him and, as Lindsey points out, even singing with them on occasions.

Indonesia is now in a precarious position. Widodo’s government is weak and indecisive. Ahok was left facing possible imprisonment and Indonesia a polarised future with power being manipulated by radical religious minorities and bigoted racial attitudes.

Jakarta will stagger on, but it may be a long time before Indonesia regains its shaken image of a tolerant, pluralist society.

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