After the end of General Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia tried hard to create the image of a democracy with the biggest Muslim population in the world. This picture was painted under the pretence that one of the main pillars of the republic was religious tolerance – and that all religions (Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism) are equally protected by the state.
The recent conviction of Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, Jakarta’s former government, however, reveals that reality is far removed from what is advertised by Indonesia. In the first week of May, Ahok was convicted of blasphemy by a regional court of Jakarta.
This high-profile conviction revealed that radical Islam holds a dominant influence in the country over the past 13 years. The blasphemy law was enforced only several times in the recent past to cement an unprincipled alliance between the generals, unscrupulous politicians and radical clerics.
What happened in Indonesia in May offers a double and valuable lesson in political science.
Firstly, we have a case in which legislation created to protect the religious minorities is being used against them.
Secondly, the hesitation of a politician, in our case the President of Indonesia Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, to abolish the blasphemy law when he took office, has led to the transformation of this law into a sharp weapon against him.
The blasphemy law
Τhe constitution of Indonesia adopted in 1945 guarantees religious freedoms. But this did not seem to be enough. Twenty years later, President Sukarno issued a presidential decree – the so-called blasphemy law – to protect religious minorities from verbal insults from the Muslim majority.
The dictator General Suharto, during his rule between 1965 and 1998, rarely enforced the law. The same occurred until 2004 when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyomo came to power.
Issued from the deep state of army officers and conservatives and keen to protect the old regime’s interests, he found a valuable ally in the radical Islamist groups. To give them more influence in the country, he used the law in the opposite direction of the purposes it was introduced, intimidating his political adversaries as well as the religious minorities with the threat of an ‘accusation for blasphemy’. During his rule, more than 100 cases were reported and thousands of Christian churches were closed.
The blasphemy law turned from a defence tool to protect minorities to a powerful offensive weapon against them. Among the victims of the law were also moderate Muslims and among them the desire of its abolition was and it is high.
Joko Widodo made his reputation as a successful governor of Jakarta and a symbol of democratic reform, anti-corruption fight and economic growth. In the eyes of Indonesians, he represented the exact opposite of what the former President and the rival of Widodo in the presidential elections of 2014 Prabowo Subianto represented.
The expectations of those who voted for him, as well as of the western world, the EU included, were too high. Widodo proved to be less prepared for a decisive blow against the old corrupt regime.
Once in charge, he favoured a policy of economic reform and growth. His aims were to help Indonesia return to the level of the most important regional power in the area (after China, Japan, India and South Korea). His aim was also to combat endemic poverty and inequality of what Indonesia suffers. To do this, he had to fight corruption and especially that connected with the former military official, meaning the deep state of Indonesia.
Since the blasphemy law was known to be a powerful weapon in the hands of his opponents, he was advised to abolish it. He hesitated because he did not believe that moderate Muslims were ready to support such action and because he overestimated the reactions of the radicals.
His hesitation has cost him, since one of his allies, Ahok, has now been convicted.
A risk for stability
The application of the blasphemy law never hit so high in society and politics. The conviction of the former Jakarta governor threatens the stability, not only of the country, but of the entire region.
The old regime is trying to protect itself from the anti-corruption fight ahead of the 2019 Presidential elections. To do this, it is trying to hit Widodo with sneaky and unfair blows.
What is more, the enemies of the President of Indonesia have no hesitation to offer more and more to the radical Islam of the country. During a period of a general uprising of Salafist Islam, the growth of influence of the radicals in the country could deviate to an uncontrolled situation. Indonesia rests high in the list of the countries with large inequality of its citizens. The moderate Islam could be majoritarian in the country, but the Salafist factor, helped by Gulf elements, becomes constantly stronger. In addition, it was reported a consistent number of Indonesian citizens in the rings of the Islamic State or attending to cross the border via Turkey.
Not everything is lost
Of course, the situation is not irreversible. Widodo still enjoys the support of a large part of the population and he is viewed by moderate Muslims as the only politician capable to keep Indonesia in the democratic rails.
He will prove whether he has learned his lesson and if will respond to his attackers with his fist. His political future in the next presidential elections in 2019 and the future of his country depends on this.
From now on, it is difficult to consider Indonesia a factor of stability and democracy in the Southeast Asian region since the latest developments put to risk the politics and the economy, as well as the security of the citizens of the country. Since it is widespread, there is a fear that the conviction of Ahok will be followed by an attack against businessmen and public servants.
Indonesia will be examined now under a new prism, that of another problematic player in the chessboard of the area.