Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s governor, is not known for diplomatic remarks.
He has called Christianity a ridiculous religion. He curses during interviews and once lashed out publicly at me for being a white foreigner.
But it wasn’t until his comments about a Quranic verse that Ahok, the name by which the popular Christian governor of Chinese descent is better known, really got into trouble. And with him the country as a whole.
It happened during an election event where he told a woman not to be “fooled” by people using the verse that Muslims can’t be led by someone of a different religion.
It was a remark his opponents have since then gratefully used, seemingly to stir up religious sentiments for their own political gain.
It is a dangerous game in a country with a Muslim-majority population which officially upholds a principle of unity in diversity.
A struggle for a more conservative interpretation of Islam, simmering for decades, has suddenly burst into the open.
More than 100,000 protesters were mobilised by ultraconservative and conservative groups on November 4 to demand Purnama‘s arrest.
Some shouted that he should be hanged, the punishment for blasphemy under Islamic law.
The government was taken completely off-guard. President Joko Widodo, a close ally of Purnama, tried to pretend that it was business as usual by paying a work visit to the airport that day.
It was one of the largest demonstrations I have witnessed in 20 years covering Indonesia.
It was not only a fist waved by people angered by Purnama’s remarks.
It is also a strong political sign that Widodo’s government – even Indonesia’s secularism – is under threat, not only from Widodo’s political opponents, who allegedly paid huge amounts of money to mobilise people to protest, but by anyone who benefits from political instability.
A few weeks ago, Indonesia was a fragile beacon of democracy and stability in the region. Suddenly, the country has been brought to a dangerous edge.
In an effort to control the damage, Widodo immediately called off his visit to Australia to allow him to pay courtesy visits to military and police units, as well as political and religious leaders, and urged everyone to uphold the nation’s principle of Pancasila, which basically stands for secularism.
Indonesia’s Pancasila has seldom been so threatened. And not just because Widodo failed to defend firmly the country’s secular system.
The seeds were planted long ago. During the 10-year rule of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, violent ultraconservative groups flourished like never before.
Their so-called religious dogmas spread rapidly to all corners of society.
The result is the same as a phenomenon we see worldwide: a society increasingly based on intolerance, hatred and discrimination along racial and religious lines.
Minorities in Indonesia, such as Christians and ethnic Chinese, are holding their breath.
Police have now decided to name Purnama a suspect in a blasphemy case. Many people feel the government has bowed to pressure from the masses and has failed Pancasila once again.
But to calm heated sentiments not only in public but also on social media, the government clearly did not see any other option.
Those now fervently and increasingly defending Indonesia’s secular system hope that Widodo has a plan up his sleeves to outsmart his opponents once again, to stop the uncontrollable spread of hatred and to bring the country back to where it was a few weeks ago: a fragile beacon of democracy and stability in the region.