Jakarta – The North Jakarta District Court's guilty verdict against Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama on Tuesday (09/05) is not a victory of Islam over minority groups in the country, but rather a setback that shows how easily politicians can exploit religious sentiment to promote their own interests, experts say.
Ahok, who is a Christian, has been an anomaly in the country's politics since replacing current President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo as Jakarta governor. He was the first Indonesian of Chinese descent to do so in the post-New Order era, which refers to the 32 years of authoritarian rule by former President Suharto.
Initially facing fierce opposition from hardline Muslim groups when he officially took over as governor on Nov. 14, 2014, Ahok later earned praise from the wider public for his commitment to bureaucratic reforms.
However, he was defeated in the second round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election by former education minister Anies Baswedan, who was backed by Prabowo Subianto, a former Suharto-era Army general and strongman. Ahok was supported by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is President Jokowi's main ally.
Vedi Hadiz, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Melbourne, told the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday that Ahok's court defeat should not be seen as a victory of Islam over minority groups.
Vedi said from a political perspective, the blasphemy case was successfully exploited as a tool to promote the interests of the "oligarchic elite" affiliated to the authoritarian New Order regime, which supported Ahok's rival in the Jakarta gubernatorial election.
When Anies declared his victory, many old guard figures were present, including moguls Aburizal Bakrie, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Hary Tanoesoedibjo and failed 2014 presidential candidate, Prabowo. All are prominent businessmen or military officers linked to the authoritarian regime of Suharto, who was ousted in 1998.
"The victorious are those in the oligarchic elite faction, who succeeded in using Islamic sentiment for their own interest, without any improvements in the lives of Muslims," Vedi said.
While 90 percent of Indonesia's more than its 240 million people are Muslim, the country upholds the spirit of its national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity. However, there is a rising trend of Islamic groups pushing their agendas that many see as a test for the country's diversity.
Setback for tolerance
Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, a lecturer in politics at Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java, said the judges' verdict was a setback for Indonesia's legal system as Ahok's "slip of the tongue" did not constitute an insult against Islam, but criticism of politicians abusing religion for their own interests.
Airlangga said some parties seized this opportunity to diminish the public's rationality and put political pressure on Ahok.
Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch echoed Airlangga's view, saying the verdict as "a huge setback" for minorities and for Indonesia's record of tolerance.
"If someone like Ahok, the governor of the capital, backed by the country's largest political party, ally of the president, can be jailed on groundless accusations, what will others do?" Andreas said.
[Additional reporting by Reuters.]