In a surprise move, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, has now appealed his conviction for blasphemy. Governor Purnama—known as “Ahok”—was convicted in May 2017. This appeal comes at a time when there is a strong pushback against some of the more radical religious forces in Indonesia.
Ahok was an energetic and efficient governor, with a 70 percent approval rating. He also is ethnic Chinese in a society where anti-Chinese sentiment remains strong and is a Christian in a country that is 88 percent Muslim.
While campaigning for reelection in September 2016, Ahok remarked that a verse in the Quran cautioning Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies was being misused by some clerics to argue that Muslims must not vote for a Christian. The influential Indonesian Ulama Council proceeded to issue a fatwa accusing Ahok of blasphemy.
Ahok was subsequently arrested and tried for blasphemy. The prosecution recommended a relatively light sentence of probation plus a one-year suspended jail term. But in May 2017, the five trial judges ignored this recommendation and sentenced Ahok to two years in prison. The following day, the Indonesian Supreme Court promoted three of those judges to higher courts.
After waiting nine months under what proved to be a mistaken belief that the prosecutors would appeal and ask for a lighter sentence, at the end of February Ahok challenged his conviction through a petition to Indonesia’s Supreme Court.
Ahok’s case demonstrates the negative impact blasphemy laws in Indonesia and other countries have on religious freedom. In a recent report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) states that “freedom of religion or belief implies that people have the right to embrace a full range of thoughts and beliefs, including those that others might deem blasphemous.”
Blasphemy laws privilege some religions and sects and penalize others, frequently leading to discrimination and violence and thus posing a direct challenge to religious freedom. Such laws also have security implications, as they can empower extremists by serving as a perverse justification for committing violence against perceived blasphemers. USCIRF advocates for the full repeal of all blasphemy laws.
Many observers consider it no coincidence that the spurious blasphemy accusations against Ahok coincided with his reelection campaign, concluding that his opponents cynically exploited Indonesia’s religious divisions for political purposes. Ahok had also been rumored as a possible running mate for current presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Now Jokowi’s campaign is being assailed by similar religiously toned accusations.
In one positive development, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in November unanimously declared unconstitutional existing legal requirement that Indonesians may identify only as Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian on their national identification cards. The case concerned the legal status of “tribal religion” and its members, which now should have full legal status.
How well Ahok’s case and ongoing religious freedom initiatives in Indonesia might help to blunt growing radical forces will be difficult to gauge until the 2019 presidential election plays out. However, religious freedom supporters should be heartened to see this effective and, formerly, well-respected governor’s latest courageous move to defend himself against the destructive effects of Indonesia’s unjust blasphemy laws.
Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute and member of the South and Southeast Asia (SSEA) Action Team, and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom