Protests against governor not only down to ‘blasphemy’ case; also down to accumulation of discontent over other incidents
On Sept. 27, 2016, the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, gave a speech in the Thousand Islands regency in North Jakarta.
The complete speech was posted online by the local government. A shortened version of the same speech went viral spawning immediate controversy.
Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), or the Indonesian Ulama Council, subsequently issued a fatwa that the governor — a Christian of ethnic Chinese descent — had committed blasphemy. MUI is a top Muslim clerical body in Indonesia that represents all Muslim organizations, including Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.
Following the fatwa, some people filed a police case, but seeing that the police were unresponsive and inclined towards protecting the governor, they started a rally for Ahok’s imprisonment. However, few Muslim intellectuals, most of whom are considered liberal, rejected the fatwa of MUI as well as the blasphemy claims.
In Ahok’s speech, he suggested that Muslim opponents were using the Quran to deceive and fool Muslim voters by invoking a verse, Surah Al Maidah 51, as part of a conspiracy to delegitimize his position as governor and oppose his campaign for a second term on the grounds of religion.
While doing so, however, his speech — which appeared to have a derisive and demeaning tone — unnecessarily seems to have emphasized that the Muslim voters were themselves “gullible and foolish” to subscribe to such “seemingly obnoxious religious beliefs” in the first place, something that immediately angered many, who found it to be blasphemous. The translation of the part of his speech considered blasphemous is provided below:
“Ladies and gentlemen, you may not vote for me because you’re deceived by [people] using Al Maidah verse 51 and so on. That’s your right. So if you feel you can’t vote [for me] because you’re afraid to go to hell after you’ve been fooled, that’s fine. This is your personal calling. This program will continue regardless.”
Surah Al Maidah 51 talks about the prohibition for Muslims against taking the Jews and the Christians as allies, which consequently is a prohibition against taking them as leaders.
This is the meaning of the verse and the accepted interpretation among scholars in Indonesia. Thus, it immediately became controversial when Ahok belittled the interpretation of the Muslim Holy Book. Regardless of his real intentions, his speech offended not only common Muslims but also Muslim scholars.
After evaluating the video of the speech, MUI stated that Surah Al Maidah 51 explicitly prohibits Muslims from appointing Jews and Christians as their leaders and that it is the duty of Muslim scholars to convey the meaning of the verse to the Muslim community.
MUI categorized the speech of the governor as being akin to insulting the Quran and the Muslim scholars who had conveyed such an interpretation. It is important to note that Indonesian law has provisions for punishment against blasphemers, and takes into account the fatwas of MUI and public reactions. Several people have been imprisoned in the past for blasphemy, including some for claiming prophethood.
The governor, however, rejected the accusations and initially fought back, calling his opponents politically motivated and racist.
Later, however, he apologized to Muslims without clearly admitting to making a mistake. He stated that he had no intentions to insult the Quran and the Ulama, claiming his words were misunderstood. Many Muslims, however, believed he had intentionally offended the Muslim community and that despite his apology, he deserved to be punished.
Widespread protests and the president’s attendance
Several Islamic organizations initiated a new front in the wake of MUI’s fatwa. This front, Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia (GNPF-MUI), or National Movement to Guard the Fatwa of MUI, has so far organized two demonstrations and a prayer gathering in Jakarta, with spontaneous public participation, alongside other demonstrations in several other Indonesian cities.
They gathered to urge the police chief and the president, both known to be close to the governor, to be fair and not to shield him from the due process of law.
The first protest in Jakarta was held Oct. 14, marching after Friday prayers from Istiqlal Mosque in the capital’s center, to City Hall. The second was held Nov. 4 and was attended by Jakartans as well as those from outside the city. It saw demonstrators move from Istiqlal after Friday prayers to the national palace to bring forward their grievances to the president, who, instead of meeting them, delegated other high officials to receive GNPF leaders — a move which caused anger and frustration among the demonstrators.
However, during a third gathering in the area surrounding the national monument (Monas) Dec. 2, the president joined the demonstrators just before Friday prayers. The gathering was also attended by people from outside Jakarta, from regions as far as Papua, at the eastern tip of Indonesia, to Ciamis, more than 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from the capital.
Questionable role of media and administration
The police tried hard to obstruct the gatherings and to prevent the participation of people from outside Jakarta, but to no avail. The two biggest Muslim organizations in Indonesia, NU and Muhammadiyah, did not advise members to join the protest, yet their members kept flooding the gatherings and protested alongside the other protesters.
The gatherings, however, were neither objectively nor actively reported by most mass media, but information about them rapidly spread on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — new tools to voice public dissent as well as a new battleground between opposition voices and those still backing the governor.
Some media reported that the number of people who attended the second and third gatherings were only in the range of thousands, at most 200,000 people, but others, such as Republika and Metro News, admitted that the protesters on both occasions numbered well over a million.
Peaceful protests and non-Muslim participation
The gatherings were generally peaceful, although some violence occurred during the second protest. In the third gathering, activists peacefully gathered around Monas in the morning and left the area soon after Friday prayers. By sunset, the area had been evacuated by protesters and cleaned of their accumulated trash.
There were allegations against some politicians of financially supporting the rallies for fulfillment of their political agendas, mainly directed against former President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono. While the involvement of some politicians in this protest movement is probable, there is no indication that they were in control of the masses and the agenda.
Despite the prevalence of public misgivings among Indonesian Muslims against the country’s largely Christian ethnic Chinese economic dominance, there were no observable anti-Christian or anti-Chinese activities in the protests. In fact, some non-Muslims and Chinese attended the rallies.
Enemy to the poor — controversial legacy of Governor Ahok
Outside of the blasphemy case, other factors have played a considerable role in the protests against the governor.
The public outburst is probably an accumulation of discontent over various incidents involving Ahok. Despite some of his policies being appreciated in Jakarta, the governor is seen by many Indonesian Muslims as very arrogant, rude and at odds with Muslim aspirations. He has tried to ban the practice of slaughtering animals in public places, such as mosques and schools, during Muslim sacrificial days (Eid al-Adha), the tradition of takbiran (saying the takbir — “Allahu Akbar”) on the streets of Jakarta at night at the end of Ramadan, and wished to legalize the selling of liquor and to localize prostitution.
He has also been accused of speaking offensively and displaying rude behavior on several occasions. In one live interview with Kompas TV, for example, he repeatedly used inappropriate words despite being warned by the host several times.
However, the most controversial of his actions may have been his economic policies that overtly favored the rich, especially ethnic Chinese, while adversely affecting and humiliating the poor. The governor fervently supports the reclamation of Jakarta Bay — the creation of an artificial island in the northern part of Jakarta to be filled with apartment buildings — despite court rulings to the contrary.
The governor has also worked towards forcefully evicting the poor from several areas in Jakarta — most of whom are indigenous Muslim locals — with the justification that they have no land titles, despite the inhabitant’s claims of having lived in these areas for several decades.
This policy may reduce the slums and make the city of Jakarta appear cleaner and more beautiful, but it does so at the cost of undermining the humanity of the underprivileged. The eviction moves have been violent and tended to ignore the voices of the poor. Although the government has provided flats for those evicted, these people still have to pay rent, but many of them have been dismissed from their previous occupations as they were located near their old dwellings.
Incidents such as these have deeply affected Ahok’s popularity, not only in Jakarta but also in other parts of Indonesia. Thus, when people heard his comments on the Quran, anger and fury spread quickly, culminating in several mass demonstrations in Jakarta and other cities in Indonesia. So far, they have expressed this anger through peaceful demonstrations and gatherings. But the question remains, until when?
Role of protests in achieving unity and a common platform
The demonstrations, aside from being a platform for the expression of Muslim discontent, have helped with something much more important. For many demonstrators, Ahok is no longer the main issue, issues faced by the Muslim community are now what really matter.
The demonstrations and the prayer gatherings have brought the Muslim community together, and helped them achieve something that was unthinkable and always viewed as impossible before. Many Muslim groups — for whom it had been previously impossible to stop criticizing or cursing fellow Muslims, let alone unite with them — are now setting aside their egos and walking together hand in hand for one purpose.
Though the leaders of some Muslim organizations have felt reluctant in joining the protests in the open, their members have unhesitatingly joined the other protesters. They have managed to unite under one leadership, taken to the streets in large numbers and showed that they are able to convey their aspirations in a very dignified manner.
Yet, the road is a long one, with no destination in sight and many challenges lie ahead.
After the third protest, Habib Rizieq, the main leader of GNPF, warned the government that a revolution will occur if Ahok is not punished for his blasphemy.
Is Indonesia going to witness a revolution in the near future, like in the Middle East, or will it be a different kind of revolution? Will it benefit Muslims and Indonesians in general, or not? Or will a legal decision against Ahok influence the case to move into another socio-political direction?
With hope, anxiety and earnest prayers, Jakarta and the whole of Indonesia is still waiting to see what will happen in the future.
*This article originally appeared on December 31, 2016 as an opinion piece for Anadolu Agency
*The writer is historian and social observer, and author of 26 books on history, religion, society and other topics.