The weaponisation of blasphemy in Indonesia

10 May 2017
Head and shoulders portrait of Chris Wilson. The background is a street scene, and Dr Wilson is across the road from the Auckland High Court..
Dr Chris Wilson

The imprisonment of Jakarta's governor has set a dangerous precedent for using the law to limit the full participation of minorities in Indonesian politics, writes University of Auckland's Dr Chris Wilson.

On Tuesday, the outgoing governor of Jakarta was jailed for two years on charges of blasphemy. Prosecutors claimed – and the judges agreed – that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok) insulted Islam during recent election campaigning. He had recited a verse from the Quran when telling an audience that people should not listen to radicals who said Muslims could not be governed by a non-Muslim. In response, militant Islamist organisations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) rallied in their tens of thousands through Jakarta demanding Ahok’s arrest.

As both a Christian and a Chinese Indonesian, Ahok was always going to face an uphill battle to be elected in Indonesia where 87 percent of the population is Muslim. But the extent of the mobilisation against him and the severity of his sentence has shocked most observers.

Many have portrayed the trial – and the election in the weeks before it – as a ‘litmus test’ for Indonesian tolerance. As home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia’s stability and minority rights have set it apart from the Middle East where turmoil and authoritarianism have led some to conclude there is an inherent incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Ahok’s conviction, and to a lesser extent his loss of the governorship, are seen as evidence Indonesia failed that test. And other observers have concluded that the result demonstrates that Islamist radicals are now the ‘kingmakers’ in Indonesian politics.

I don’t believe the recent events are evidence of either of those things.

Mob attacks and intimidation of minorities (Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslims and Christians) have occurred with enough regularity over the democratic period to mean that Ahok’s jailing was not a watershed of intolerance. The government and security forces have done little to prevent such attacks or to prosecute those involved. Those who have watched Indonesia since it democratised have recognised that the country is far from the tolerant utopia sometimes described, but nor is it a state where radicals hold sway.

Recent events do not mean that Indonesia is suddenly now controlled by radicals: the Ahok case was almost unique given his ‘double minority’ status as a Chinese Indonesian Christian. FPI and other Islamist organisations have previously exercised little political influence and in most future electoral races – the vast majority of which are between ‘indigenous’ Muslim candidates – the militants will return to the political margins.

Instead, Ahok’s jailing and the mobilisation of religious prejudice during the preceding campaign provide further evidence of inherent weaknesses in Indonesian democracy. 

These events show how religion and law can become politics by other means, a form of ‘lawfare’ designed to undermine – and ultimately destroy – political opponents. 

This case shows how effective this strategy can be at the highest political levels. Ahok’s misguided speech gave his political opponents the opportunity they needed to defeat a highly effective and popular politician.

After the militants’ rallies, Ahok lost the election in a landslide to his opponent (Anies Baswedan) who had met with leading radicals during the campaign. A large proportion of voters admitted in exit polls that they voted against Ahok for religious reasons despite believing he had been an effective leader. And with his blasphemy conviction, he is barred from standing for public office in the future. A dynamic and youthful politician, part of a new generation of relative political outsiders who had been challenging the old way of doing politics in Indonesia (corrupt, collusive and nepotistic), has now been permanently sidelined.

Some see an even bigger political goal behind the recent events. Ahok served as President Joko Widodo’s former deputy governor and the two have always been closely linked. By weakening Ahok, Jokowi’s opponents may have also undermined the president’s bid for a second term in 2019.

This use of religion and blasphemy is not new to the democratic era. The authoritarian Suharto regime (1966-1998) also used blasphemy to silence critics. However, use of the blasphemy law has become increasingly weaponised during the democratic era, with dozens of cases, almost all targeted at minorities and all leading to convictions. Given his position, Ahok’s is by far the most high profile such case and has set a dangerous precedent for using the law to limit the full participation of minorities in politics.

While the case does not foretell a country taken over by radicals, it does tell us a lot about the current trajectory of the world’s fourth largest democracy. Politicians remain willing to both facilitate and exploit religious prejudice to win power and the courts willing to appease those who hold political power or the conservative mobs demonstrating on the country’s streets. Ahok’s conviction is further evidence of Indonesia’s consolidation as an illiberal democracy rather than one whose claimed motto is Unity in Diversity.


Dr Chris Wilson is a senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations, in the Faculty of Arts.

Used with permission from NewsroomThe weaponisation of blasphemy in Indonesia published on Wednesday 10 May 2017.