By: Dewi Kurniawati

On Friday, December 2, Indonesia’s political structure – and even the fabric of the nation as a secular republic – is expected to be further tested by a massive rally aiming to bring tens of thousands of Muslims into Jakarta to protest against the city’s Chinese Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who has been accused of blasphemy against Islam.

At stake is not only Ahok’s political career but possibly that of President Joko Widodo himself, who picked Ahok to be his running mate when Jokowi, as the president is universally known, ran to become Jakarta governor in 2012. Ahok replaced Jokowi when the latter was elected President in 2014.

Fearful of the political use of Islam by various forces mobilizing against the governor, the government has mobilized the police, the military, the moderate Islamic Nahdlatul Ulama organization and other moderates to try and keep the Islamic genie in the bottle.

Real feelings

“This is not just about paid crowds,” said a source close to the moderate camp. “There is real sentiment behind this, a real feeling by many even the educated and the middle class that Ahok is a problem, that a Chinese should not govern Jakarta. This is a scary reality.”

The source, who is involved in efforts to mute the protests, worries that those behind the rally – and an earlier massive action a month ago – want to eventually toss out the president, who is a follower of a very moderate strain of syncretic Javanese Islam, and push the country toward becoming an Islamic republic.

Ahok has been known for his strong stance against corruption and effective administration of a bureaucracy that has long been plagued by inefficiency and incompetence. He has made many enemies along the way, including officials and members of the city council whom he has criticized publicly.

The governor’s evictions of poor people for flood control projects – moving them into apartments that charged rent and placed them far from their jobs – and other actions to clean up a deeply polluted city have now turned many of the poor against him.

Invoking the Koran several months ago in a discussion on whether a Christian has the right to govern Muslims was soon distorted by Islamists who have long distrusted the governor for religious reasons. They have been aided, sources say, by the considerable political war chest of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose ten years in office ended in disgrace in 2014 with numerous members of his government facing corruption charges.

Enter the son

Yudhoyono’s son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, is running against Ahok for governor in elections scheduled for February 2017 and the governor himself is facing a police investigation into the blasphemy charges, which would probably be deemed ridiculous in most countries but are sometimes used in Muslim-majority Indonesia for political ends.  

Yudhyono and his powerful wife, former first lady Kristiani Herrawati, have denied any involvement in the rallies. Agus has recently moved ahead of Ahok in opinion polls, apparently due to the blasphemy charges.  Former education and culture minister Anies Baswedan has also entered the race. Political analysts expect a runoff will be necessary, with none of the three winning more than 50 percent of the vote in the February polls.

“I think SBY is dreaming of getting back to power in some fashion, using Islam cynically as a way to do so,” said a well-wired business source. “The combination of rising Islamist sentiment, street radicals and political money is real.”

The source close to moderate efforts to put an end to the Islamist campaign said it would be a mistake to discount public sentiment in favor of a more strict form of Islam.  He said opinion surveys show a sizable minority of Indonesians shifting toward more doctrinaire forms of Islam than the tolerant variety commonly practiced in the country. “This trend is dangerous for our country,” the source said.

This has to stop

Jokowi, a person close to the president said, “is determined to stop this. He fears that we could end up with an Islamic republic if this gets out of control.”

The Friday rally is expected to be smaller than the November 4 one, and police have served notice that it is to be contained within the area surrounding the national monument in central Jakarta. They have made it clear both publicly and privately that any violence will be met with overwhelming force. The November 4 event ended with sporadic violence and one death.

Last week, Indonesia’s national police chief General Tito Karnavian met with Habib Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the notorious hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to agree to limit the event to the national monument area in the morning after previously insisting that the group would conduct Friday prayers along Jakarta’s main roads.

The FPI has been playing a leading role in demanding that police immediately arrest Ahok. They are the public face of the rally and Rizieq has gone from being a fringe figure leading an often violent band of thugs to being consulted by national figures. He is too powerful now to be arrested, said a source, who holds Rizieq responsible for numerous crimes of intolerance stretching back many years.

Where are we going?

It is uncertain how this will end. The Jakarta governor has repeatedly apologized and said he never intended to insult Islam or the Koran, but he has a vivid way with words. He has used expletives during television talk shows, publicly insulted his subordinates and even described his own religion, Christianity, as silly.

Ahok has been nominated by Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle as well as the massive Golkar Party and smaller pro-government parties to run in the upcoming gubernatorial elections.

His ascension to the top job in the city teeming with 10 million people has been hailed as an example of Indonesia’s embrace of democracy and diversity.  However, several political analysts have warned that the election has become an entry point for Jokowi’s political opponents, while nationalists say “foreign enemies” have also taken advantage to ride on the issues of religion and ethnicity, which are considered very sensitive for a country as diverse as Indonesia.

Memories of the anti-Chinese riots that burned large parts of the city in 1998 as former strongman Suharto stepped down remain vivid for many. Flights to Singapore are said to be full as many Chinese Indonesians go abroad for the weekend to avoid the rally.

Jokowi has accused “political actors” of exploiting anger over Ahok’s remarks to undermine his government.  The president has taken a personal role in trying to tamp down emotions. He had a series of lunches and meetings with several key political leaders, including the chairman of Gerindra, Prabowo Subianto, who was his rival in the 2014 presidential race. He pointedly left out Yudhoyono, leaving the public to speculate that the former president is manipulating the unrest and is funding the massive rallies.

Not long after the November 4 rally, Yudhoyono invited journalists to his residence in Cikeas, Bogor, to quell rumors that he was behind the rally. His wife also said in her Instagram account that allegations that her husband is behind the rally are “an extraordinary insult” to their family.

“If [people] throw accusations against Pak SBY [Yudhoyono’s nickname] saying he sponsored and funded the November 4 peace rally, this is not only evil slander but also an extraordinary insult to SBY,” she wrote. “This accusation is very cruel. God knows what we have done [for the country].”

Pollster Charta Politika in its latest survey issued last week showed Agus Harimurti holding the highest electability rating, followed by Ahok, with Anies running third. The survey was conducted after Ahok was named a blasphemy suspect.

The allegations of blasphemy stemmed from remarks made by Ahok during a meeting with Jakarta residents in September. Ahok said his opponents had used a verse from the Koran to deceive voters and prevent him from winning another term. A video of the remarks was altered to show the governor in a bad light and went viral on Facebook, helping to fuel the unrest

Before the blasphemy case, polls consistently showed Ahok leading in the race for reelection. He is still free to campaign pending the outcome of the legal process, which could take months or even years.