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Indonesia’s blasphemy trial a test of Islamic tolerance

As a crowd of more than 1,000 Muslim hardliners rallied outside the courthouse on Tuesday to call for his head over allegations of blasphemy, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was inside making an impassioned plea of his innocence.

Reading from a prepared script, the Chinese Christian politician choked with emotion and wept as he mentioned his intimate ties to the Muslim family he said had adopted him when he was a boy.
“I am very sad that I have been accused of insulting Islam, because the allegations are tantamount to saying I defamed my own adoptive parents and siblings who I love, and are very dear to me,” said Purnama, better known as Ahok.
His detractors, watching the proceedings on television, saw him playing the Muslim card to show that he is “one of them” – and thus could not possibly blasphemed when he cited the Koran to dismiss opponents who said the holy book forbids Muslims from electing a non-Muslim leader. Lawyers do not expect a verdict any time before next February’s gubernatorial election, which Ahok is contesting.
Analysts say the hearing and protests by Muslims against him in recent months have thrust issues of race and religion to the forefront of next year’s regional elections, which will be held across the nation.
But is this debacle purely about racial and religious tolerance in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world?
Observers say no, adding that there are many undercurrents that cannot be ignored.
“While grievances with Ahok should not be dismissed as purely religiously driven – claims of corruption and policies biased towards the middle-class ethnic Chinese minority are allegedly aplenty – mass mobilisation was possible precisely because of the use of religious rhetoric,” says Nursheila Muez, an inter-faith researcher from Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
There is also an ideological war that started recently with the struggle between the reformists and the “entrenched interests”, adds Leo Suryadinata, a senior fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The reformists referred to are Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Ahok, his close ally and deputy when Jokowi was Jakarta governor.
The entrenched interests refer to the likes of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and retired army general Prabowo Subianto.
The latter was Jokowi’s rival during the 2014 presidential election, while the former has, at best, a tenuous relationship with his elected successor.
“The entrenched interests are using Islam, including the militant version of the religion and its adherents, to counter the reformists, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of the reformists using just secular issues,” says Suryadinata.
The anti-Ahok protests, including a December 2 rally that attracted more than 200,000 Muslims, reflect the tension that Suryadinata refers to.
The arrest of 10 political activists – many with ties to Yudhoyono and Prabowo – accused of inciting the protesters to topple the government during the rally, was yet another clear indication of a sinister power play beneath the surface of the Jakarta gubernatorial race.
While such manoeuvres are not uncommon in Indonesian politics, tapping Islamic ideology in a country where extremism has been known to rear its ugly head is a dangerous game, say analysts.
There is still a long way before the court rules on Ahok’s case or investigations against those rounded up for treason will end.
What is at stake, however, is not just Ahok’s bid for re-election or the fate of the alleged dissidents, but also Indonesia’s standing as a global beacon of moderate Islam and democracy.
“Beneath the politics, Indonesia is engaged in a quiet but vital ideological struggle, one between the idea of a Muslim state and that of a more pluralistic vision of a multi-religious Indonesia,” says Suryadinata.

Published : December 15, 2016

By : Francis Chan The Straits Times  Asia News Network