A setback for Indonesia

opinion May 15, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

2,266 Viewed

Verdict in Jakarta governor’s case suggests court gave in to the mob 



It was not too far back that progressive thinkers in Southeast Asia looked up to Indonesia with high hopes. 

They were hopeful that the post-Suharto era would see big change in the world’s fourth most-populous country. Democracy and democratic institutions were being strengthened to serve this great nation with so much potential because of its sheer size and strategic importance. 

Internal political strife in countries like Thailand and Malaysia had stalled the democratisation process, thus turning the spotlight solely on Indonesia, the beacon of hope for Southeast Asia. It was not only the world’s fourth most populous but also the largest Muslim country.

It’s moderate outlook and interpretation showed that Islam and democracy were compatible. This was not only important for Southeast Asia but also for the world because it countered the prevailing narrative in Western society that saw Islam as incompatible with modernity and democracy. But this past week, the country’s march to democracy hit a big roadblock after a court found Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama guilty of blasphemy. 

“Since beginning our march toward democracy in 1999, Indonesia has come too far to simply give it up now. But the nation is having to fight every step of the way. Ahok’s guilty verdict was surely a tragedy on that journey and wrong on so many levels,” wrote Endy M Bayuni, the editor of the Jakarta Post, in his recent commentary. “It goes against our sense of justice, it raises questions about whether courts can make rulings independent of public opinion, it casts doubts on the capability of law enforcement in dealing with mobs and it undermines freedom of speech and other freedoms. And where is the state in all of this?” Endy asked. 

Ahok is an ethnic Chinese and a political ally of President Joko Widodo, the former governor of Jakarta before he was elected president. Ahok was accused of blasphemy last September while campaigning for re-election when he urged the public to vote with their conscience and not to be fooled by his opponents who were making a reference to Al Maidah, a chapter in the Koran that said Muslims should not be ruled by non-Muslims.

One has to wonder if his opponent would have played the blasphemy card if Ahok were not in the lead. One also has to wonder, in this context, who was really exploiting religion for political gains? Prior to Ahok’s conviction, the most prominent blasphemy case was the 1991 five-year sentence to Arswendo Atmowiloto, the chief editor of the Jakarta tabloid Monitor, who published a poll on readers’ “most admired people” which rated the Prophet Muhammad 11th among 50 names.

Exploiting religion for political gain is nothing new in Indonesia or Thailand. But society and courts tend to come to their senses and see the politics behind these accusations. 

But surprisingly, the Indonesian court decided to reinstate the blasphemy charge after the state prosecutor had already dropped it. Muslims may have been insulted by his speech but his statement does not constitute blasphemy, the state prosecutor said.

No matter how one looks at it, there is no way of getting around the perception that the court gave in to the mob. Perhaps the appeal court, which is deliberate behind the public eye, could come to their senses and do the right thing and drop the blasphemy charge. 

To use emotional distress stemming from insults to go after people is absurd and meaningless because it’s the easiest thing to claim and impossible to refute. 

If the Indonesian court wants to punish people for unpopular speech, then it should know that they are rolling back all the gains that the country’s people made since the fall of dictator Suharto.