Jakarta Governor Beset by Religion (and Politics)

In the wake of Friday's larger-than-expected rally against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama over allegations of blasphemy against Islam, President Joko Widowo postponed a state visit to Australia. Meanwhile rumors are rising that the massive demonstration was funded by political forces -- including former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- trying to oust the popular ethnic Chinese and Christian leader ahead of elections next year by using Muslim hardliners as a wedge.

On Friday, Nov. 4, tens of thousands of people joined the much-anticipated demonstration on the streets around the center of Jakarta, marching toward the presidential palace while shouting “God is great” to demand that authorities prosecute Ahok for blasphemy. There were scattered chants of "Kill Ahok" during the day but the rally was largely peaceful until dark, when some splinters of the rally became violent.

Behind the scenes is an attempt by Muslims led by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to take the city back from Ahok on racial and religious grounds. Ahok is running for reelection in February 2017. Against him are two tickets, one headed by the Democratic Party's Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The second is led by Widodo's former Education Minister, Anies Baswedan, who jumped to the opposition Gerindra Party after he was dismissed from the cabinet in August.

If the abrasive but effective Ahok could be forced out of office, the reasoning goes, Anies and Agus would have a clearer path to power. The danger zone for Indonesians is the use of religion for political purposes, which carries echoes of anti-Chinese rioting in 1998. The scattered violence in Chinese areas following the rally Friday raised concerns for some but it was isolated enough to avoid a full-blown crisis.

Widodo is known to be deeply hostile to political machinations that threaten Indonesia's reputation for tolerance and moderation. He is unlikely to move openly against Yudhoyono but he is equally unlikely not to forget if he feels the former leader overstepped.

Muslim leaders “want the city back,” said one well-informed Jakarta source. Others noted that the bulk of the demonstrators were bused in from outside Jakarta.

Reports throughout the day said demonstrators were paid between $5 and $10 plus food and transport to join the rally.

On edge

The city was on high alert ahead of the rally, with many schools and offices closed last Friday after information began circulating about unrest due to the rally. The FPI said it would bring 100,000 people to the demonstration, and it seems to have come close. Thousands of police backed by military personnel were also on alert.

The massive march began at the national Istiqlal Mosque and filled roads in the central city around the State Palace after Friday prayers. Much of the city was paralyzed while roads elsewhere were largely free of traffic.

Political figures including President Widodo, Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto, and Yudhoyono all commented on the demonstrations, underlining the gravity of the issue. After the event the president said political actors were fomenting the unrest. Yudhoyono denied any involvement.

The National Police chief warned that the demonstration might be used by radical groups as an opportunity to stage a terror attack, raising tensions further. There was no terror attack, although rock throwing and a few cars set alight by a radical student group raised fears in the city.

Anger over video

The current flap over Ahok, long a target of hardliners infuriated to see a Chinese Christian leading Muslim-majority Indonesia's largest city, began when a short video clip surfaced of Ahok making a speech in September in which he mentioned the Koran. The clip went viral on social media after it was edited to show the governor seemingly criticizing the Koran. The full video was uploaded by Ahok’s administration a week earlier.

The video footage showed Ahok telling locals not to be lied to by political leaders using Surah al-Maidah, Verse 51 of the Koran, ahead of the February 2017 gubernatorial election. The verse is interpreted by some as saying Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders.

Following strong objections from Muslim leaders, Ahok quickly apologized and said the video and his statement had been distorted. However, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) ruled that the statement was blasphemy and has urged law enforcement officials to bring charges. They filed a report against Ahok with the National Police's Criminal Investigation Department for religious blasphemy.

Ahok is currently under investigation over the charges, which the president said would be looked into transparently.

This was the second anti-Ahok rally initiated by the FPI after the first one on October 14. The demonstrations have spread outside of Jakarta.

Moderates challenged

The country’s two largest Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah did not encourage their members to take part in the rally, let alone any provocative actions at the event. Muhammadiyah, with around 40 million followers nationwide, said it would not prohibit its members from participating in the rally.

NU suspects the rally has a hidden agenda, “I am afraid that [the rally] is propelled by a third party whose issues are bigger than just the [Jakarta] election,” said NU central board chairman Said Aqil Siradj as quoted by The Jakarta Post.

Jokowi, as the president is universally known – who just celebrated his second year in office at end of October — has been targeted for his silence on the "case," and is accused of protecting Ahok ahead of the Jakarta election. The two were on the same ticket in 2012 and Ahok ascended to the post from being deputy governor when Jokowi became president. Controversy over Jokowi’s silence is said to be provoking widespread public anger.

“Jokowi should stop protecting Ahok,” said Amien Rais, former head of The People’s Consultative Assembly during the rally.

Former president Yudhoyono in his televised press conference days before the rally also said that the country would burn from anger if Ahok escapes justice proceedings.

Yudhoyono’s son Agus retired early from a once-promising Army career to stand in the gubernatorial election. The former president has been accused of opposing Ahok out of personal interest to see his son win.

Yudhoyono has largely been in the political wilderness since stepping down in 2014 after ten years in office. At the end of his second term, his administration was in shambles, with corruption charges filed against former cabinet ministers and senior officials. Yudhoyono's once-mighty Democrats were largely a non-factor in the 2014 race between Widodo and Prabowo.


When Jokowi came to power two years ago after a closely fought election, he faced an opposition majority in the legislature bent on obstructing him. But in recent months he has swung a powerful majority of the legislature to his side. It remains to be seen if the Ahok flap will dent a president with high -- and rising -- approval ratings. A survey released in September by the Jakarta-based private think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies found that his popularity had risen by nearly 16 per cent, to 66 percent, from last year.

He gets high marks for his perceived success in improving food security, strengthening domestic industry and pushing for Indonesia to become a maritime power, according to the poll.

The president has also jetted across the far-flung archipelago to inaugurate and inspect various infrastructure projects as part of his signature hands-on leadership style. "God willing, Papua and West Papua [provinces] won’t be dark anymore by 2019,” Jokowi said after inaugurating six power plants in remote Papua recently.