Indonesia: Ahok blasphemy conviction ‘inevitable’

May 19, 2017

Dr Ian Wilson is a fellow of the Asia Research Centre

Dr Ian Wilson is a fellow of the Asia Research Centre

A Murdoch University researcher has said the recent jailing of Jakarta’s former Christian governor Ahok for insulting Islam was inevitable due to the scale of his public demonisation and the history of blasphemy charges in Indonesia.

Dr Ian Wilson, a fellow of the Asia Research Centre, told Al Jazeera news that Ahok, until recently a potential presidential candidate, was in trouble from the moment he was charged after questioning a verse in the Quran that deals with non-Muslim leaders.

His comments were seized upon by political opponents, which sparked angry protests and debate about Indonesia’s religious tolerance. This ultimately cost Ahok the election and his liberty.

Ahok was defeated in the second round of Jakarta’s Gubernatorial elections by Anies Baswedan in April.

“With the unfortunate wording he used, Ahok gave an opportunity to his enemies, who ensured his statement took on a life of its own,” said Dr Wilson.

“Every single charge of blasphemy in Indonesia has been turned into a conviction, so it was no surprise to see Ahok jailed for two years.”

Dr Wilson said Ahok’s abrasive style and sometimes patronising tone with the electorate, combined with some controversial policy programs, had not helped, either in the election campaign or his court case.

“He is renowned for an abrasive upfront style, and that’s been a blessing and a curse. While some found it a breath of fresh air in Indonesian politics, others have found it disrespectful, which has lost him support among groups who might have been sympathetic.

“His defeat and conviction needs to be understood in a broader context of growing income inequality in Jakarta, which has manifested in the increasing separation of groups based on ethnicity and class, and reflected politically in receptiveness to populist politics.

“Ahok’s elite rivals, Islamists and disaffected groups such as the urban poor, used sectarian identity issues in their campaigns. Through his hardline policies such as evictions, Ahok managed to alienate urban poor groups and others who might otherwise have rallied to counter the mobilisations by Islamists over the blasphemy charges.”

Dr Wilson added that the outcome of Ahok’s case would be unsettling for minority religious groups in Indonesia, which is a largely Muslim country.

“It will make people mindful of how they might speak out, or whether they put themselves forward for a political role,” he said.

“There are now hardline Islamist groups which have moved from the fringes into mainstream politics thanks to the Ahok case.

“It has delivered them political influence and greater memberships, so it will be interesting to see how the government will deal with these groups and whether their influence continues to grow.

“In this current atmosphere, it is difficult to see how the Ahok case could lead to a reassessment of the blasphemy law.

“But it is also important to understand that for Jakartans, everyday life continues in the same way it has done in their complex city. Every-day discourse and interactions between many kinds of groups continues without incident and has not been affected.”

You can watch Dr Wilson on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story program here.

Dr Wilson also took part in a recent panel discussion about the implications of the Jakarta election results, co-hosted by Murdoch’s Asia Research Centre and the Indonesia Project at the ANU. The discussion can be viewed here.

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