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Ahok: Indonesia’s religious tolerance on trial?

Jakarta’s governor on Indonesia at a crossroads between a multi-religious state or a nation ruled by Islamic principles.

Jakarta’s outgoing governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison on May 9 in a south Jakarta courtroom over comments he made regarding what he believed to be the misinterpretation of certain verses of the Quran.

As hundreds of protesters gathered outside calling for the maximum penalty to be given, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, the presiding judge, told the court that Purnama was “convincingly guilty of committing blasphemy”.

The court case against the Indonesian capital’s first Christian and ethnic Chinese governor since the 1960s was filed by several conservative Islamic groups after a statement he made on his re-election campaign trail went viral on YouTube. 

Ahok quoted the Quranic verse Al Maidah 51 while introducing an economic programme in a village – his concern lay in his political opponents using this very verse to discourage people to accept his leadership as a non-Muslim. The message was seen as Ahok criticising the verse itself, as opposed to those who may misuse it to undermine his political aspirations. 

In spite of some major achievements, including cleaning up the river system, providing low-cost housing to the poor and improving infrastructure, Ahok’s words brought hundreds of thousands to the street, and divided the country in opinion. 

Indonesia has the largest Sunni Muslim population in the world and recognises six religions based on the countries ideology named Pancasila – a set of interrelated principles. According to the constitution, these six religions are all equal.

However, in the past two decades, the blasphemy law has been increasingly used against religious minorities.

In 2012, a public servant in Sumatra was jailed for 2.5 years after declaring himself an atheist on Facebook. A Muslim scholar received a two-year prison sentence for preaching Shia teachings.

Ahok was running for re-election against two Muslim candidates – and his supporters claim the “blasphemy” accusations are politically motivated.

Purnama lost his bid for re-election in an April runoff – after the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years – to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan.

Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama talks to Al Jazeera about the legal and political battle facing the governor, whether Indonesia’s religious tolerance is at a crossroads and if he wants to become Indonesia’s first ethnic Chinese president.

Indonesia saw some of the largest protests in its history as a result of the allegations against Ahok. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of the capital, demanding his arrest. Asked to deliver a message to those he has angered, Ahok says the issue isn’t what it seems and explains the use of the Quranic verse in that chosen context.

“I think the situation has changed since then [the protests]. Most of the people then had only seen an edited version of what I said,” he says. “They [people on the islands] had apologised in the past to me that they did not vote for me because according to their teachings about the verse of Al Maidah, a Christian is not allowed to be a leader and I am a Christian.”

A combination of an edited snippet from the governor’s speech and virality via Youtube may have seen protesters line the streets of Jakarta, but Ahok believes that this is all part of the challenge of the elections. “What would have happened if I were not running for re-election? There would not be this problem,” he says. 

Ahok continues: “I see this as a historic opportunity for our nation, if we can continue to build our nation according to our constitution, which says we are a united country based on unity in diversity. I am grateful that history has chosen me to be in this position today.”

Asked about the direction he feels Indonesia is going in, especially in considering its official status as secular and recognising multiple religions, Ahok is optimistic about the future.

“Islam in Indonesia wants to bring prosperity and grace to all creatures,” he says. “If you are Muslim, Christian or Hindu, you will still be an Indonesian. I am convinced that the majority in this country are still on track with our ideology. After this case happened, it is actually getting stronger. We are more aware that we can’t stay quiet. We are a country based on Pancasila. A tolerant nation.” 

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in January 2017.

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