Jailing of Ahok emboldens hardliners in and outside of Indonesia, say Muslim scholars

Jailing of Ahok emboldens hardliners in and outside of Indonesia, say Muslim scholars

Jakarta governor fights blasphemy charges
Protestors demonstrate against Ahok while the trial stretched out for a few months. (Photo: AP)

KUALA LUMPUR: It was the moment hardline Muslim detractors of Jakarta’s outgoing Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, had waited for. A south Jakarta court on Tuesday (May 9) found Purnama – also known as Ahok - guilty of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced him to two years’ jail.

Outside the courtroom, about 1,000 anti-Ahok hardliners cheered and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) while his supporters, many of them Muslims, broke down and cried.

The decision to jail Ahok has raised worries that moderate Islam in the world’s largest Muslim country is being eroded while hardliners grow in strength and influence – something that could have implications for the rest of the region, particularly in Malaysia.

A prominent Malaysian Muslim scholar warned that it will reinforce conservatism in his own country.

“This particular court verdict would reinforce the more conservative, bigoted interpretations of Islam in Malaysia, I have no doubts about it. Those (conservative) interpretations are already very strong in Malaysia,” president of the International Movement for a Just World, Chandra Muzaffar, told Channel NewsAsia.

“Its impact on a country like Malaysia is worse than its impact on Indonesia, where counter-trends and counter-narratives are still strong. You have NU, civil societies and others who speak out,” said Chandra, referring to Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest moderate Muslim organisation. “In Malaysia, there is no counter-narrative.”

He noted that court rulings pertaining to religious matters have been more or less conservative over the past 15 years. “That sort of conservative trend is going to be even stronger,” Chandra added.

A Member of Parliament from the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) has alleged that the judges in Ahok’s case bowed to public pressure. Ahok’s two-year jail sentence is much harsher than the one-year suspended sentence that prosecutors had called for.

“(We are sure) that the judges ruled so due to pressure and intervention, not based on legal facts and evidence," PDIP’s Charles Honoris was quoted by The Jakarta Post as saying.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Islamist party PAS was quick to make an example of Ahok when he lost April’s gubernatorial election.

“This success clearly shows a signal of Islam’s uprising there. When you insult Islam, don’t think Muslims will not act by rejecting you as a leader. The Jakarta election has proven it,” the Malay Mail Online quoted PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan as saying.


Nahdlatul Ulama, which has 50 million followers, conceded that hardliners have scored another big win following Ahok’s defeat in the gubernatorial election. The campaign was marked by fiery hate speeches from hardliners who called for his death and denounced his Muslims supporters as infidels, warning them not to vote for him.

“This is the second battle the moderates have lost. The war is not lost yet. We believe the majority of Indonesians don’t want radical movements to exist in Indonesia,” Yahya Cholil Staquf, secretary-general of NU, told Channel NewsAsia.

A day after Ahok’s jailing, thousands rallied at various points in Jakarta to show their support for Ahok and to defend the national motto of “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity) to counter calls by hardliners to dissolve the Republic of Indonesia and replace it with an Islamic caliphate.

The straight-talking Ahok was both loved and hated for taking on the powerful elites in his efforts to clean up Jakarta’s bureaucracy and to develop the city.

He was sitting comfortably in opinion polls until a fateful speech to a fishing community last year, where he said political rivals were using a verse in the Quran to say Muslims cannot be led by a non-Muslim.

A video of his speech, doctored to make it appear that he had said the Quran was misleading people, went viral, sparking accusations that he had insulted Islam. It eventually led to him being charged and convicted of blasphemy. 


The radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) spearheaded the anti-Ahok movement, mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in rallies, joined by other radical groups including Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) which the government is seeking to disband.

HTI seeks to replace the secular Republic of Indonesia with an Islamic caliphate as part of a wider goal to establish a global caliphate.

NU’s secretary-general Staquf lamented that the Indonesia government appears to be afraid of radical groups, further emboldening them.

“What makes me concerned all this while is that the government appears … to be afraid of the possibility that the radical groups will threaten peace and security, cause riots and others,” said Staquf. “I see this happening not only in Indonesia but all over the world.
“I believe this is the wrong attitude to take as it leads to radicals blackmailing governments and societies.

“What is countered right now is violent extremism but not non-violent extremism, as if non-violent extremism is okay. Non-violent extremism is only one step away from violence. Both of them are dangerous ... they threaten peace and security everywhere in the world,” he added.

“The middle-class in Indonesia defends Hizbut Tahrir’s (right to exist) in the name of democracy. But the issue here is not about democracy, but groups which threaten peace and security,” the NU chief argued.

“I believe radical groups have to be eradicated as they are dangerous to all, everywhere in this world … like in Syria and Iraq. There is no need to be afraid of them,” he said.

FPI was established in 1998 and has a history of violent vigilantism where they conduct raids and attack restaurants and night clubs that stay open during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Scores of journalists have been attacked by FPI while covering the anti-Ahok protests in recent months and some of FPI’s members have even joined the Islamic State extremist group.


Given the role FPI played in contributing towards Jakarta’s newly-elected Muslim governor, Anies Baswedan and his deputy Sandiaga Uno’s victory, some residents are worried over the influence the group will exert over the new administration.

“One of the party they have to pay back (for their win) is FPI who supported them like crazy during their campaign,” said businessman Okki Soebagio. “I think the values they (Anies and Sandiaga) are going to show will be a lot more conservative and FPI could become a lot more radical in their acts (of vigilantism).

“I don’t think that Anies, who is an academician, can control such groups. That is my worry.”

FPI has called Anies’ win a “victory for Islam.” “This is a victory of Muslims in Indonesia,” FPI spokesman Slamet Ma’arif told Channel NewsAsia, adding that the group boasts 5 million members.

NU describes the radicals as “very smart and strategic”. “We expect them to infiltrate deeper into the government through whatever conduit they can get from Anies being the Jakarta governor,” said NU’s Staquf.

“I also expect them to use the educational system to spread their views via religious teachers. They have been doing that for years.”

Counter-terrorism expert and founder of the International Peace Building Institute Noor Ismail Huda warned that it would now be more difficult for the government to promote moderate and tolerant Islam.

“FPI will now have more political power ... since those radicals are sitting informally in any political decisions as they contributed a massive number of votes (during the election). FPI may not have formal political power but they will have cultural and social influence,” said Huda.

“I call this the mainstreaming of the radicals. As a result, the country will be held hostage by these radicals.”

Source: CNA/ly