The Islamist Challenge to Jokowi

Letter from Jakarta

Members of the Islamic Defenders Front at a protest against acting Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in Jakarta, November 2014. Darren Whiteside / REUTERS

Around lunchtime on December 2, the skies opened over Jakarta. But the downpour was probably the last thing on Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s mind as he strolled the few hundred yards from the presidential palace to a nearby plaza, where an estimated half a million Islamist protesters were chanting for the arrest of one of his political allies. 

Such blusukan—casual walkabouts in markets and villages—were a key part of Widodo’s electioneering and made him seem a down-to-earth man of the people in voters’ eyes. All the same, the protesters were taken aback by the president’s gate-crashing, especially when he joined their ranks, which included some of Indonesia’s most hard-line Islamist leaders, for Friday prayers. 

“Jokowi,” as the president is known, commended the drenched crowd for assembling peacefully, interspersing his brief cameo with cries of “Allahu Akbar,” and prayed with Habib Rizieq Shihab, the head of the shadowy Islamic Defenders Front, known as the FPI, an Indonesian acronym. One protester, who gave his name as Ahmad, said that he was very surprised, but that “it was good that Jokowi spoke; it helps Indonesia be united.” Ahmad said that he had flown in from Bali, a majority Hindu holiday island, to attend the demonstration. 

The target of his and the other protesters’ ire was Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was deputy governor of Jakarta and was elevated to the governorship in 2014 when Widodo, who had held the post, became president. Purnama is a Christian of Chinese descent, a blunt and forceful outsider running the capital of the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla walk to pray with protesters in Jakarta, December 2016. Antara Foto / M Agung Rajasa / via REUTERS

Purnama’s position running one of the world’s top five metropolises will be on the line in the next gubernatorial election in February 2017. But if the demonstrators have their way, he will be in jail before then for allegedly insulting Islam during a political rally in which he said that his opponents were using the Koran to justify voting against him.


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