Indonesia has long enjoyed a positive reputation for practicing a moderate and tolerant form of Islam. But the situation in the world's most populous Muslim nation doesn't appear to be so positive any longer. Radical forces across the country are gaining strength and seeking to transform the currently pluralistic democracy into an Islamic state.
Ethnic and religious minorities are increasingly under pressure, facing threats and intimidation from extremist groups. The court trial against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta's first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, and the verdict are the latest evidence of the deteriorating state of affairs.
Purnama, who is commonly known by his nickname Ahok, was jailed for two years by a court on Tuesday after convicting him of blasphemy.
In announcing its decision, the five-judge panel said Ahok was "convincingly proven guilty of blasphemy" and ordered his arrest. The punishment was harsher and went beyond the two-year probation demanded by prosecutors.
The judgment is an alarming signal for Indonesian society, as it shows how even state-appointed judges are increasingly adopting radical Islamist positions. Until 2004, there had been only around 25 blasphemy cases registered across the country. The figure has now increased almost ten times.
The danger comes with not just radical Islamic groups gaining more influence but also secular parties increasingly adopting the former's positions to counter political opponents.
Playing with fire
So what was actually Ahok's alleged crime? "In your inner hearts, ladies and gentlemen, you may feel you cannot vote for me, because [you have been] lied to by the use of Surah al-Maidah, Verse 51. […] So, if you cannot vote for me because you are afraid of being condemned to hell, you do not need to feel uneasy, because you are being fooled. It is alright," Ahok said last year while campaigning for re-election.
Excerpts of the speech were later circulated on social media with misleading subtitles. What followed were angry reactions from the country's Islamist groups, with the radical Islamic Defender's Front (FPI) being the first one to protest.
Initially, the movement against Ahok was loud and violent but small. It was expected that FPI would protest against Ahok's speech. What was unfortunate, however, was that Ahok's other political opponents also exploited the issue, embraced stereotypes and rode through the Islamist wave.
Suddenly, the FPI was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, who held protests across the country, presumably financed by Ahok's opponent, Agus Yudhoyono. Ex-Education Minister Anies Baswedan also distanced himself from Ahok and donned "peci" - the traditional Muslim headgear - in his election campaign. He even prayed together with the FPI representatives.
The 2019 presidential election
With Ahok's departure and sentencing, his opponents have won a great victory. But their main goal is to unseat President Jokowi, who seeks re-election in 2019.
In their opposition to Jokowi, his political opponents have accepted the role of radical forces in Indonesian politics. But the genie of radical Islam can no longer be pushed back into the bottle. The 2019 presidential vote, therefore, will be a decisive moment for the future of the Indonesian state. It is obvious that a further radicalization of the most populous Muslim country in the world would have a devastating impact on the entire Muslim world.
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