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Blasphemy Case Heightens Tensions in Indonesia

Walter Russell Mead

Tensions are brewing in Indonesia over a blasphemy complaint lodged by hardline Muslim groups against the Christian Governor of Jakarta, which police say they will now investigate. Reuters has more:

Indonesian police said on Wednesday they will investigate a blasphemy complaint by Muslim groups against the Christian governor of Jakarta, amid simmering religious and ethnic tension in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

The decision to officially name Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a suspect means the case will definitely go to court and is likely to stoke concerns over rising hardline Islamic sentiment.

But dropping the case could have sparked further protests by some Muslims against Purnama and also against President Joko Widodo, who is seen as a key backer of the ethnic Chinese governor.

The controversy goes back to a campaign speech in September, when Purnama cited a Quranic verse to argue that his rivals were misleading voters. The Governor has since apologized for any misunderstanding, but that has not quelled protests and pressure from hardliners.

The dispute illustrates the divide between various strands of Islam in Indonesia. More traditional Indonesian Islam is somewhat syncretistic and mystical, in some ways connected to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions that dominated the archipelago before Islam arrived. But in recent decades, more hard-edged and less tolerant forms of the faith have been advancing in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. For instance, the economically troubled city of Solo has become a hotbed of radicalization for a new generation of young militants, some professing ties to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. And in the middle class, signs suggest that religiosity is rising and more extreme interpretations of Islam are making headway.

Other factors are at work as well. Indonesia is one of the countries in which Protestants have been gaining ground against Islam—an always explosive situation for a religion that views apostasy as a crime deserving of death. Additionally, many of Indonesia’s Chinese minority (usually more urban, better educated, and more affluent than the country’s indigenous Muslim population) are Christian, and are unpopular on both religious and ethnic grounds.

Purnama, the once-popular, ethnically Chinese Governor of Jakarta, is a threat both to those who want a “pure” Islamic Indonesia and to those who resent Chinese influence. Sadly, intolerance is gaining ground in this historically tolerant country. Indonesia is not immune to the currents of polarization and conflict spreading through so much of the world in these dangerous times.

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