AN air of dismay hangs over Jakarta and much of Indonesia in the wake of former governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s conviction for blasphemy.
Protests were held in the capital and various parts of the country with people holding candlelight vigils demanding suspension of the sentence pending appeal.
The ethnic Chinese and Christian governor was originally charged with committing blasphemy under Article 156a of the country’s criminal code and with defaming Muslim leaders under Article 156.
However, on April 20, a day after Ahok lost in the runoff election to seek his second term, to former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, the prosecutors dropped the blasphemy charge, citing lack of evidence.
Instead, they urged the court to place him on two years’ probation if found guilty of violating Article 156 of the Criminal Code on showing animosity toward others and jail him for a year if he committed the offence again. The judges completely ignored this.
And in a curious turn of events, three of the five judges were promoted a day later, a move which Indonesia’s Judicial Commission described as “questionable”.
Both the prosecution and Ahok’s lawyers have since filed appeals against the two-year jail term.
To many Indonesians, the verdict signals the rising power of religious extremists and growing contempt for Pancasila, the five-pronged philosophical basis of Indonesia’s nationhood.
There is also anxiety that the country remains vulnerable to the powerful elite capable of using whatever means, including religion, to return to power, despite the hype of democracy, diversity and religious tolerance in the post-Suharto era.
The former governor’s crime was to criticise opponents who used a verse in the Quran to discourage Muslims from voting for non-Muslim leaders.
It sparked outrage among the radicals. Huge rallies were held, during which there were calls for Ahok to be jailed and even killed for allegedly insulting Islam.
Poet and former Tempo magazine editor Gunawan Mohamad analysed it well in a Facebook post and predicted the court’s findings.
Among other things, he wrote: “The use of the label against Ahok is probably the most successful stigmatisation technique in the history of Indonesian politics. A stigma derived from slander.
“He did not insult Islam, but the charge was continuously repeated. If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes ‘the truth’, the Nazis’ propaganda chief used to say.”
Anies, a former student activist involved in the ouster of Suharto’s regime, was in the Cabinet briefly under President Joko Widodo.
In January, the politician, who was regarded as a moderate, spoke at a gathering of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a key moment in boosting his popularity.
As Ahok’s fate hangs in the balance, there is another interesting but less highlighted story linking key players in the drama.
It’s a probe into pornography and violation of a law covering steamy WhatsApp chats and salacious images, and the main suspects are a religious leader and a woman being investigated in a case of treason.
And Malaysia has come into the picture too, no thanks to the arrival of the firebrand preacher deemed a fugitive in his country.
No, it’s not Dr Zakir Naik, the Indian national who was given Permanent Resident status in Malaysia, along with awards and accolades.
The man in question is FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, an Ahok adversary who was called in as an expert witness in the trial.
The woman is Firza Husein, coordinator of the Suharto-linked Solidaritas Sahabat Cendana foundation.
When the story broke, both denied the allegations, claiming that the pictures, erotic chats and a recorded conversation between Firza and another woman over the affair, were all a hoax.
Firza, a divorcee and a single mother, was charged with plotting to overthrow the Government after an anti-Ahok protest on Dec 2 last year together with 10 others, including Suharto’s son, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra.
She was freed from detention on
Feb 24, on grounds of failing health, but remains a suspect.
There have been sketchy reports about Rizieq having gone to perform the Umrah in Saudi Arabia and to Yemen, apparently to see his newly born third grandchild before coming to Malaysia.
National Police spokesman Insp Gen Setyo Wasisto said Interpol’s help had been sought to bring Rizieq back to Indonesia for ignoring two summonses over the pornography case.
But according to an Antara news report, the cleric is in Nilai, Negri Sembilan, as a PhD candidate at the Universiti Sains Islam (USIM), where he did his master’s degree.
By the way, Rizieq, who is also wanted for insulting Indonesia’s state symbols, is an ex-convict.
In 2003, he was jailed seven months for inciting people against the security forces, and being involved in damaging entertainment outlets in Jakarta.
In 2008, he was jailed a year and six months, for attacks against supporters of the National Alliance for Freedom of Faith and Religion at the National Monument square.
Will he be handed back to Indonesia or allowed to finish his studies here? Based on past examples, I dare not hazard a guess.
> Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: Religion is the last refuge of human savagery.