JAKARTA -- On Dec. 2, Islamist groups organized the largest demonstration that Indonesia has witnessed since the overthrow of President Suharto in 1998 to urge the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama -- popularly known as Ahok -- for blasphemy after he allegedly misrepresented the Quran.
Approximately one million people weathered a monsoon storm to participate peacefully in what was billed as a "Rally to Defend Islam" as they held a huge outdoor Friday prayer congregation.
On Nov. 16, the governor was charged with criminal defamation. He was interrogated and then released.
His questioning by police followed another large demonstration on Nov. 4, which attracted 200,000 protesters who attempted to storm the presidential palace gates before they were repelled by tear gas. One died and more than 350 people were injured in that protest.
The controversy has dominated the election campaign for the Jakarta governorship, the country's second most prominent profile elected post. Ahead of the Feb. 15 polls. Purnama had earlier been considered the front-runner. As the city's deputy governor, he inherited the post after the previous governor, Joko Widodo, was elected Indonesian president in 2014.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo after joining demonstrators protesting against his former deputy governor of Jakarta, incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, at the National Monument in Jakarta on Dec. 2. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)
The protests and public criticism of Purnama have been fueled partly by the fact he is Christian in a country with the world's largest Muslim population, and also ethnically Chinese. There is widespread resentment that Indonesia's Chinese minority, which comprises less than 4% of the total population, dominates the commercial and industrial sectors.
During the Dec. 2 protest, hundreds of thousands of people lined the roads leading to the National Monument in central Jakarta, praying on small rugs and sheets of newspaper in the pouring rain. In a carefully choreographed show of solidarity, Widodo and his Vice President Jusuf Kalla joined the prayers at the National Monument. Afterward, the president offered a few words of appreciation that the rally had been peaceful, but was met with chants demanding the imprisonment of Purnama.
The rallies against the governor have been largely organized by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which is seen as a hardline Muslim group headed by Grand Imam Habib Rizieq. The fact that the FPI has been able to mount such huge demonstrations signifies the arrival of an ultraconservative Islamic lobby on the political main stage.
The government and other Islamic organizations have been divided over how to deal with the FPI and similar groups. Initially, the authorities appeared opposed to the staging of the Dec. 2 rally, saying it threatened government security following the violent protests in early November. On one side, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world's largest independent Islamic organization, advised its members not to participate in the rally and cited a fatwa ruling that Friday prayers should not be conducted on the street.
But the Indonesian Ulama Council, one of the country's most important Islamic organizations, undermined Nahdlatul Ulama's position by deciding to support the rally and issuing its own fatwa condoning street prayers. The council also helped negotiate with the police and army on condition that the December rally be peacefully held.
Highlighting the anxiety of Widodo and the security services, 11 senior political and military figures -- including Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's first President Sukarno, and two prominent generals -- were arrested on the morning of the rally on charges of treason, criminal conspiracy, hate-speech, and allegedly insulting the president.
These arrests occurred after weeks of political drama, which had played out on television and over social media as Widodo met with all major political party chiefs to shore up political support. He had also discussed arrangements to enable him to choreograph his dramatic and seemingly "spontaneous" participation in the mass prayer congregation at the National Monument. The urgent and alarmist tone of his negotiations with the FPI was reinforced by both police and army chiefs who warned in a series of news conferences about a plot to overthrow the government.
Delicate balancing act
The government had clearly tried to co-opt the rally organizers by branding the event as a purely religious gathering and referring to it as a "rally for peace." Simultaneous rallies were held in other major cities, including Medan, Surabaya, Makassar and Solo.
Protester performing wudhu, the Islamic pre-prayer washing ritual, during a mass demonstration against Jakarta's Christian governor on Dec. 2. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)
Ultimately, the event could not hide growing anger among some Muslims toward Purnama for allegedly misrepresenting Islamic scripture and toward the political establishment in general. FPI leader Habib Rizieq told the crowd: "Upholding justice for all religions in Indonesia should guarantee that they must not be defamed."
The trigger for the current anger was Purnama's perceived blasphemy in a speech earlier this year in which he urged a predominantly Muslim community that they had the right to vote for him in the upcoming gubernatorial election, telling them not to be "fooled" by people misrepresenting specific verses of the Quran. His controversial statements were captured on video and went viral in Indonesia's turbulent social media.
One FPI supporter who works at the education ministry told the Nikkei Asian Review during the rally: "If Ahok is not prosecuted, it will be war." In such circumstances, he warned, the Chinese could become the next targets for popular ire.
The latest rally shows that Widodo's government and Indonesia's political establishment is being put on notice by the conservative Islamic lobby, with reminders that it can wield considerable political influence based on popular appeal.
A leader of a Sulawesi-based Islamist group said: "If six million of us wanted to storm the presidential palace we could. But that's not in our teaching. Think about it, how many soldiers are there -- even if a few of us were shot." Other groups talked about holding more rallies and said that if their demands were not met, then they expected a fatwa to be issued calling for jihad.
The blasphemy controversy reflects deep-seated grievances about economic inequality between the Chinese minority and Indonesia's vast Muslim majority populations. This attitude is reflected in a recent comment by Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Nahlatul Ulama, who said that "Ahok's statements are offensive, regardless of whether he is convicted of defamation or not, because the statement is offensive to Muslim people. What's more, the person saying it is not Muslim... moreover, [he's] Chinese."
JAMES BEAN and ANDRE BARAHAMIN, Contributing writers