Despite having the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia seldom troubles others and so draws little attention in the West. But last month’s imprisonment of the governor of the capital, Jakarta, on charges of blasphemy has properly brought it to the front pages. It may signal that the world’s third-largest democracy is sliding into authoritarian or Islamist rule.
The jailed governor is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, universally known as “Ahok,” who is ethnic Chinese in a country with abundant anti-Chinese prejudice and Christian in a country that is 88 percent Muslim. Nevertheless, last year he had a 70 percent approval rating and was widely expected to return to the governor’s mansion in this April’s election. You can find an abundant assortment of photographs on social media, including some from the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Mecca, featuring people with signs that declare, “I am a Muslim and I support Ahok.”
However, at a campaign rally last September Ahok referred to al-Maidah 51, a verse of the Koran warning Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies, which he said was being misused by some clerics to assert that Muslims may not vote for him. Several days later, a mendaciously edited video of the talk, omitting some of his key words, went viral on the Internet. The semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa accusing him of blasphemy, and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)—a radical group hitherto noted mainly for attacking Muslim minorities, churches, and liquor stores and nightclubs that didn’t pay them enough protection money—called for demonstrations demanding that he be tried and imprisoned, or executed. One demonstration drew over a million people in Jakarta, and Ahok was charged and tried, though he continued to canvass votes, commuting daily between the campaign trail and the trial.
The campaign was ugly. Anies Baswedan, a comparatively moderate former education minister and Ahok’s chief opponent, took to wearing conspicuously Islamic clothing and gave a speech at the FPI’s headquarters, sitting alongside its leader, Rizieq Shihab. Radical preachers declared that Muslims were forbidden to vote for a non-Muslim, and several mosques displayed signs stating that Ahok voters could never have an Islamic burial. The governor continued to seek votes, but on April 19, he lost 58-42 percent.
The day after the vote, when it could not help him politically, the prosecution dropped some of the charges against Ahok and recommended that he be given the very light sentence of probation plus a one-year suspended jail term. But on May 9, the five judges ignored the prosecutors’ recommendation and sentenced Ahok to two years in prison. The following day, three of those judges were promoted by the Indonesia Supreme Court.
The verdict has split the country in a way not seen in decades. There are widespread demonstrations defending Ahok, but many of his supporters are too afraid to speak out. The president and the national police have been at odds with the military. Tensions within divided families are so high that people may refuse to be in the same room with one another or attend each other’s weddings. There is widespread fear that Indonesia may lapse into authoritarian government.
The Islamist surge has exposed growing radicalization in Indonesia’s population, especially among the young, and especially in the universities, with the exception of the State Islamic Universities, which are usually bastions of moderation. This radicalization is often led by a well-funded Saudi network of schools, scholarships, imams, and mosques determined to wrest Indonesians away from local interpretations of Islam, which have usually encouraged democracy and peaceful relations between religions. The country’s two largest Muslim organizations were formed a century ago as explicit counters to Saudi Wahhabism, and they have urged the government to curb Saudi influence.
The national police have been cracking down on radicals. In the last few months, Rizieq Shihab, FPI’s leader, has himself been investigated for blasphemy after reports that he denigrated the Holy Trinity. He has also been questioned concerning allegations that he insulted Pancasila, the official state ideology, Sukarno, Indonesia’s revered first president, and Indonesia’s currency (by claiming that the new banknotes featured Communist symbols). Rizieq has spent the last month in Saudi Arabia, partly to avoid police questioning, but on May 30, the police charged him under the pornography law for allegedly sending sexually explicit messages to Firza Husein, who has been arrested for treason on suspicion that she was trying to orchestrate a coup through her role as an organizer of the mass demonstrations. Meanwhile, the government has announced that it will ban the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
But the opposition to Ahok extended beyond radicals. Many ordinary Muslims believed that he had deliberately insulted them and this genuine religious sentiment has been manipulated by senior politicians, the military, and other elites, who also likely funded the radicals. The FPI does not have the money or other resources to organize massive demonstrations with thousands of buses, lunch boxes, and neatly printed signs and T-shirts.
These machinations were also aimed at Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president and Ahok’s former running-mate, who was rumored to be considering Ahok as his vice-presidential candidate for the 2019 national campaign. Jokowi, as he’s known, is the first Indonesian president from outside the military and political establishment, and in the 2014 presidential election he defeated Prabowo, son-in-law of the last dictator Suharto and a former special forces general accused of human rights abuses. Prabowo and some of Suharto’s children are thought to be setting the stage for another presidential run, hoping to return Indonesia to a more authoritarian system with a larger role for the military. They may also hope that Indonesia’s current unrest will increase demand for expanded security services and a firm political hand.
There are other tensions between the president and the military. Jokowi reportedly reprimanded General Gatot Nurmantyo, chief of the Indonesian Military (TNI), after the latter unilaterally declared a suspension of defense cooperation with Australia. General Nurmantyo has also publicly contradicted the National Police chief, General Tito Karnavian, a Jokowi ally, about whether there has been anything treasonous in the recent demonstrations. Some regional TNI commands have even given military training to FPI members.
Indonesia has many strengths. Despite Wahhabi inroads, its dominant forms of Islam remain open and tolerant, and can be important allies in the struggle against Islamist terrorism and extremism. Muslims from Indonesia are still 20 times less likely than Muslims from America to try to join ISIS, and 50 times less likely to do so than Muslims from England or other parts of Europe.
But growing radicalization and a push for authoritarian rule is eroding Indonesia’s democracy and comparatively peaceful social order. If this gubernatorial election becomes the paradigm for the next presidential contest, then they may collapse. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy and the only Muslim-majority country in the ten largest economies in the world. If it succumbs to Islamic radicalism or authoritarian rule, it will be a dark day not just for Indonesians.