Indonesian Muslims pray at a rally against Jakarta Governor Basuka Tjahaja Purnama ("Ahok") inside the Istiqlal mosque, February 2017.
Indonesian Muslims pray at a rally against Jakarta Governor Basuka Tjahaja Purnama ("Ahok") inside the Istiqlal mosque, February 2017.
Antara Foto Agency / Reuters

Indonesia is still reeling from a divisive election in April, in which hard-line Islamists forced the indictment on blasphemy charges, and eventual imprisonment, of the sitting governor of Jakarta, a Christian of Chinese descent named Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”). The trial and conviction of Ahok have generated fears that the country’s social fabric is fraying, that sectarianism is on the rise, and that Indonesia’s democratic institutions are too weak to withstand a concerted assault from Islamists. The country once praised by former U.S. President Barack Obama as a model of tolerance, pluralism, and democracy is now facing challenges to all three.

Despite such tensions, Indonesians remain overwhelmingly committed to democracy—some 70 percent believe it is the best system for their country—and the country is a rock of stability in Southeast Asia. There is little danger of Indonesia turning into an Islamic state. The real worry is that unscrupulous politicians have realized that playing the religious card can win them elections. They will surely try to use it again in the race for the presidency in 2019.


The election in Jakarta, which took place over two rounds in February and April, initially pitted Ahok against two Muslim candidates. One, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, was the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a political neophyte who had just resigned from the military. The other, Anies Baswedan, was a noted educator backed by Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo, the scion of an influential political family, a retired army general with a controversial human rights record, and the son-in-law of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, had lost the 2014 presidential election to an ally of Ahok, Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi.”

The governor of Jakarta, Basuka Tjahaja Purnama ("Ahok"), at his blasphemy trial in Jakarta, May 2017.
Ahok at his blasphemy trial in Jakarta, May 2017.
Antara Foto Agency / Reuters

The trouble started in September 2016 when Ahok urged a group of civil servants to vote their conscience and not be fooled by anyone using a verse of the Koran to suggest that non-Muslims could not govern Muslims. He was referring to an argument that Islamist groups had used against him in the past. The Islamists argued that a certain verse, which warns Muslims against having Jews and Christians as allies, friends, or leaders (depending on the translation), means that Muslims should not vote for a Christian. On many previous occasions Ahok had challenged such efforts to discourage his Muslim supporters without serious legal or electoral consequences.

This time, however, the Islamic Defenders Front—an Islamist group known for its attacks on bars, brothels, Christian churches, and members of the minority Ahmadiyah sect, as well as its close ties with police—was waiting. The front, which had a long history of hostility toward Ahok and which he had tried to dissolve, posted a slightly doctored video of his speech on YouTube and then sent texts out over WhatsApp to ensure that it went viral. Across the country, members of the front and other Islamists filed criminal complaints against Ahok, accusing him of blasphemy for suggesting that the Koran or those who cited it could be wrong.

Indonesia’s blasphemy law, incorporated into the Criminal Code, is a holdover from the 1960s that local human rights organizations have challenged, so far unsuccessfully, as incompatible with the Indonesian constitution’s guarantees of freedom of religion and equality under the law. The relevant provision, Article 156a, states that “whosoever in public deliberately expresses feelings or engages in actions that in principle are hostile toward or abusive and defamatory of a religion embraced in Indonesia; or are intended to persuade a person not practice any religion at all that is based on belief in Almighty God shall be punished by maximum of five years in prison.” It was famously used in 1991 against a newspaper editor for conducting a fake popularity poll in which he, the editor, defeated the Prophet Muhammad. In democratic Indonesia, the law has been used mostly against practitioners of so-called deviant religious sects but never against a high-profile elected official.  

Yet on October 11, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) issued an opinion, non-binding but influential, that Ahok’s statement was indeed blasphemy. The MUI is a quasi-official body representing all Islamic organizations in Indonesia. The council was originally set up by the former dictator Suharto as a religious rubber-stamp for his policies, but in recent decades it has expanded its influence. The October fatwa was a message to Muslims across the country that Christians and other non-Muslims should not hold office in Muslim-majority areas—a major setback for democracy. After the ruling, an alliance of Islamist hard-liners calling themselves the National Movement for the Defence of the MUI Fatwa began to organize mass protests demanding that Ahok be imprisoned.

The first protest took place in November with some 300,000 people flooding the streets of Jakarta. Although Jokowi initially attempted to protect Ahok, he abandoned his ally once it became clear he could be dragged down as well. Fearing that the security situation could rapidly deteriorate, the police (who serve the president) formally declared Ahok a suspect, even though it was clear that some senior officers did not believe there was a legal case. On December 2, in the largest demonstration in Jakarta’s history, over 500,000 people protested, many of them ordinary Muslims who had been convinced through social media and by sermons at Friday prayers that Ahok had attacked Islam. Two weeks later, the governor’s trial began.

On February 15, Ahok managed to win the first round of the election, but with less than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a run-off with Baswedan. In the second round, on April 19, he suffered a landslide defeat. He might well have lost a second round anyway, but the blasphemy charges sealed his fate. On May 9, judges declared him guilty and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Jakarta's Sudirman Central Business District, as seen on a cloudy day, May 2017.
Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters


Ahok’s guilty verdict shocked many Indonesians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, not only because it was unjust, but because hard-liners had succeeded in forcing political institutions to bend to their will through mass mobilization, implicitly threatening violence if their demands were not met. It raised questions about judicial independence and the politicization of the courts, which have long been subject to external pressure and corruption. (In what was thought at the time to be a major reform, supervision of the judiciary was transferred in the early post-Suharto years from the Ministry of Justice to the Supreme Court in order to encourage judicial independence. One unintended result is that judges now believe they can make rulings on their own, without reference to the prosecutor’s dossier, legal precedent, or accumulated evidence.)

The verdict also spells trouble for future elections in Indonesia—especially the 2019 presidential race, in which Jokowi will again face Prabowo, among other candidates.

The Prabowo camp, which publicly thanked the organizers of the anti-Ahok protests on election night, benefitted from mobilizing the Islamists and may well try to unleash them against Jokowi. Blasphemy will be a harder sell, since Jokowi is a Muslim, but the basic model may be too tempting to ignore. Instead of blasphemy, the hard-liners could play the anti-Chinese and anticommunist cards, and indeed have already begun to do so. The campaign against Ahok revived racist slogans not seen since the paroxysm of anti-Chinese violence in 1998 that accompanied the downfall of Suharto.

The combination of race and religion made Ahok a particularly potent target. It is rare in Indonesia for members of the small but influential ethnic Chinese minority to enter politics, let alone achieve high office. Under Suharto, the Chinese were subject to systematic discrimination—they were banned from the civil service and armed forces and forbidden from using Chinese in schools or publications. Suharto accused China of supporting the Indonesian Communist Party, which he blamed for a 1965 coup attempt, and regarded local ethnic Chinese as a fifth column. The rights of the Chinese minority were restored in 2000, but hard-line Muslims—including Bachtiar Nasir, one of the leaders of the anti-Ahok campaign—have continued to promote the theory that ethnic Chinese conspire with foreigners to steal Indonesian resources, deprive “indigenous” Indonesians of access to the economy, and work with mainland China to spread communism.

The revival of anti-Chinese sentiment comes just after Jokowi had signed major infrastructure deals with China. Now the same groups that brought Ahok down are spreading rumors that the president comes from a communist family and that communism is on the rise—ludicrous charges, but ones that Jokowi has felt compelled to refute. For 2019, the Islamists are likely to mix anti-Chinese, anticommunist, and income inequality arguments to generate further mass protests.

Hard-line Muslims have continued to promote the theory that ethnic Chinese are conspiring with foreigners to steal Indonesian resources and spread communism.


In the meantime, the government is trying, with limited success, to defuse tensions and reassert its commitment to pluralism. Jokowi has had high-profile meetings with religious leaders in an effort to show that the Indonesian mainstream rejects the hard-liners and the hate and intolerance that they have sown. But interfaith dialogue is not the answer when the problem is opportunistic use of religion and race for political ends.

Police have also begun to move against some of the individuals and organizations behind the anti-Ahok protests, but they have to tread carefully to avoid the impression that freedom of association is imperiled or that old authoritarian practices are being revived. So far, the government has decided to ban Hizbut Tahrir, an international Islamist organization, on the grounds that it is working to undermine the state. Founded in 1983, the Indonesian branch of Hizbut Tahrir has been operating above ground since Suharto fell and has been legally registered for the last three years, meaning that in 2014, Indonesian officials saw no problem with its ideology or activities. The group is nonviolent but committed to eventually replacing the Indonesian republic with an Islamic state under a global caliphate. A ban could force it underground or push some of its members into the arms of the country’s tiny pro-Islamic State (ISIS) fringe.

Charges have also been brought against a number of individual Islamists. The leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, Habib Rizieq, is being sought on pornography charges after an explicit video surfaced of him and a well-known activist. (As of this writing he was in Saudi Arabia, defying summonses to return to Indonesia.) In March, on the eve of another planned demonstration, which in the end fizzled, another of the front’s leaders was charged with “rebellion,” or makar, which implies seeking to overthrow the government. Police have used the same makar charge, previously applied mainly to Papuan separatists, to indict other political activists who they suspect of wanting to exploit the demonstrations to topple Jokowi, even if they had no chance of actually doing so. And Nasir, the Islamist who is leading the racially tinged economic equality campaign, was accused of money laundering for sending some of the funds raised for the December demonstration to Turkey to assist Syrian refugees, although these charges were later dropped. 

The proposed ban on Hizbut Tahrir has wide support among leaders of mainstream Muslim organizations, who see it as poaching their members and taking over their mosques. Yet some of those same leaders are concerned about the “criminalization” of Islamist leaders on dubious grounds, and are worried that it could spark a backlash from which hard-liners could benefit.

The larger question is whether the elections in Jakarta have strengthened political pressure for formal application of Islamic law The answer thus far is no. There is still strong public support for the independence-era compromise between Islamists and nationalists, according to which Indonesia would not be a secular state—everyone would be required to accept the belief in one God—but five (eventually six) religions would be recognized: Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism, and later Confucianism. The Salafist clerics involved in the anti-Ahok demonstrations may have long-term ambitions to undo that compromise, but they are not likely to get very far. Their political allies, such as Prabowo, are more interested in short-term political gains than in systemic transformation. And although hard-liners may be reveling in their newfound influence, mainstream Muslim organizations are pushing back—for instance, some have organized youth groups to stop Hizbut Tahrir and other Salafists from holding public rallies or religious discussions.

Yet even if the worst-case scenarios remain unlikely, playing with religion is playing with fire. Support for democracy may remain strong in Indonesia, but the quality of that democracy will decline if the tactics used in the Jakarta election become a regular feature of the country’s politics. As the 2019 election approaches, the shining example of pluralism in Southeast Asia is looking seriously tarnished.  

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