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Rising Islamism in Indonesia?

Verena Hölzl
November 7, 2016

At least 50,000 Muslims took to the streets of Jakarta at the weekend. They want the city’s governor to be jailed on charges of blasphemy. On Monday, the police interviewed him for the first time.

Indonesien Protest gegen Gouverneur Ahok wegen "Blasphemie" in Jakarta
Image: DW/V. Hölzl

Smoke rises up from the charred contents of trash cans on the boulevard outside the presidential palace in Jakarta. The cones of light beneath the streetlamps are thick with it. Street cleaners sweep past odd sandals abandoned by demonstrators in the heat of the moment. Soldiers with machine guns and batons rest on the grass. The garbage disposal teams heave barbed wire on the back of a truck for removal. Jakarta is recovering from the biggest demonstration it has seen in a long time.

Depending on whether you ask the police or the organizers, between 50,000 and 150,000 people marched through the Indonesian capital on November 4. They were demonstrating - peacefully at first, then violence broke out after nightfall - because in their eyes the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as "Ahok," had insulted the Koran. "Ahok has to go," says Alit, a man in his late thirties wearing a Gaza-supporter T-shirt. That's why he's been out and about since seven o'clock in the morning.

Demonstrator Alit
For demonstrators like Alit, Governor Ahok is unacceptableImage: DW/V. Hölzl

Ahok had publicly apologized for his comments before the demonstrations began, but it didn't do him any good. "We forgive him, there's no question about that. But rules are rules," explains Alit. "If someone runs a red light, they have to give up their driving license, too," he adds.

As far as Alit and the others from his mosque community are concerned, the governor, who came to power two years ago after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, became president, has clearly broken the rules. A Christian of Chinese descent, Ahok is said to have made disparaging remarks on video about a sura in the Koran saying that Muslims were not allowed to have non-Muslims as their leaders. Can this sura indeed be compatible with democratic principles? Alit hasn't given any thought to this.

Gesticulating Muslim demonstrators
Despite their confident gestures, the protesters don't represent all Indonesian MuslimsImage: DW/V. Hölzl

Accusations of blasphemy as political tool

Indonesia has a blasphemy law. Any people who insult religions may, in some circumstances, be required to explain themselves in court. More democracy brought more convictions. In the past decade in particular, there has been a considerable increase in the number of convictions for blasphemy.

Alit dismisses as nonsense the idea that he and the other demonstrators are being instrumentalized, using religion as a pretext, for a power struggle ahead of the elections for the Jakarta governorship in the spring of 2017. In fact, there have already been a number of attempts by Islamic fundamentalist forces to brand Ahok an "unbeliever" and drive him out of office.

Democracy and religion

Arie Sujito, a political scientist from Gadjah Masa University, told DW: "We are dealing with a mingling of religion and politics, and we have to put a stop to it. Otherwise we run the risk that it will lead to more violence." The demonstration was organized by, among others, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which some describe as vigilantes and others as a group of radical Islamists. The FPI is known for dragging Muslims out of bars that serve alcohol during Ramadan, mobilizing against LGBT activists, or taking the publisher of "Playboy" to court.

Poster reading "Ahok is the source of nation's disintegration"
Ahok has often faced vehement criticismImage: DW/V. Hölzl

Many schools and offices in the center of town remained closed on Friday, and local media reported that some residents had left the city because they feared there would be rioting. Announcements about the forthcoming demonstration had revived memories of the protests in May 1998, when the furious people took to the streets to bring down the dictator Suharto. Back then, anti-Chinese sentiments boiled over: Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed and thousands more fled after the mob set fire to their houses. A memorial to remind people of the violence of 1998 was inaugurated only recently - by none other than Governor Ahok himself.