INDONESIA, NETRALNEWS.COM - Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, is a double-minority – ethnic Chinese and Christian – and a poster-boy for Indonesia’s pluralism and religious tolerance. His three years as governor of the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation was, in the opinion of many, marked by extraordinary improvements in public services, a fight against corruption, and a sharp intolerance of inefficiency. A Jakarta taxi driver summed it all up with one sentence: “Ahok is very, very good. The only reason he is no longer governor is because some people do not like his religion.”
Ahok’s imprisonment has sent shockwaves through Indonesia’s religious minorities and among moderate, pluralistic-minded Sunni Muslims. If a talented, popular governor who was not corrupt – a rare breed in Indonesia – could be brought down and jailed because of religion, what fate awaits the country’s grassroots Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shias, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, and those Sunnis who do not subscribe to radical Islamist ideology?
Still, Ahok’s case shines a spotlight on the erosion of Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism, and exposes its fragility. “It’s over for Indonesia’s tradition of moderation,” said Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch’s researcher in Jakarta. “In ten years, Indonesia could be Pakistan. No bars, no beer, very limited rights for minorities, and women completely covered, especially in the most conservative Muslim areas. And there might be big violence.” Or, in the words of a Christian pastor, “if action is not taken soon to curb the radicals’ influence, Indonesia could be the next Syria.”
Ahok has now dropped his appeal, not because he admits guilt but because his family have faced threats. His sister, Fify Lety Indra, a lawyer helping to represent him, has been warned that if he appeals, she would be charged with blasphemy too. Ahok himself has received a specific death threat from Jafar Umar Thalib, a jihadi who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Indonesia’s justice system is now held ransom by radicals.
Indonesia likes to pride itself as a role-model — a Muslim-majority democracy that is moderate and pluralistic. Traditionally that has largely been true, and there remain many Muslim clerics, scholars, civil society activists, and leaders who continue to defend pluralism. But a country where Muslims are told they cannot vote for a non-Muslim as governor, where that governor is then jailed for blasphemy on flimsy evidence, where minority places of worship are closed down and religious minorities live increasingly in fear, where children have been seen carrying Islamic State flags, and where a 15-year-old Christian girl is told by her Muslim best friend that their friendship is over is no longer a role-model of tolerance. A country where supposedly “moderate” Muslim politicians give radicals a platform, unleashing and emboldening the forces of intolerance, is a country playing with fire.
Talk of Indonesia as Pakistan or Syria sounds grotesquely alarmist. Such a description is not an accurate way to depict Indonesia today. But it is a fair warning. If the government of Indonesia and the international community wish to prevent such a fate, urgent action is needed. The international community must continue to support voices of moderation among Indonesia’s Muslims, but it must stop unconditionally praising Indonesia as the role-model it has already ceased to be.
The Indonesian government must be pressed to repeal the blasphemy laws, which are the cause of so much injustice. The laws have poor definitions, no proof of intent, and a low requirement for evidence; they are misused often for political or social score-settling and wreak chaos and sometimes violence in society. The Indonesian government should listen to the United Nations special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, and the independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, who recently described blasphemy laws as “an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression” which “disproportionately target persons belonging to religious minorities, traditional religions, non-believers, and political dissidents.”
Experts described the imprisonment of Ahok as a step that will “undermine freedom of religion or belief and freedom of speech in Indonesia.” Blasphemy laws, they argued, are incompatible with a democratic society and harmful to religious pluralism. Ahok’s case “illustrates that the existence of blasphemy law can be used to justify intolerance and hate speech.” Instead of speaking out against hate speech and violent protests against Ahok, the UN experts said, “the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination.”
Ahok’s case should be reviewed and he should be released, funding for the radicals stopped. Politicians of all mainstream secular parties should adopt a “no platform” policy for the Islamists, and laws restricting the practizes of non-Sunni religious minorities repealed. Only such bold, courageous actions can bring Indonesia back from the brink. (*)